Book Reviews
Comments 6

Not for the Impatient – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient is a novel set in World War II that tells the history of the English patient, a desert explorer who is burned to an unrecognizable toast by a plane crash. He is taken care of by a nurse named Hana. While these two quietly continue to survive, two more characters arrive, characters who would make a small family with the nurse and the patient and who would provide the details of the English patient’s gap-filled story. Intertwining the characters’ past and present, it is altogether a novel of mystery, history, and love that transcends the limits of time and space.


However, I got terribly bored with it. It felt like unspooling a thread; you keep on pulling until what’s left is a messy tangle and a hollow tube. Not that there’s such a great mystery behind it; it’s just that after finishing it, you don’t quite know what to do with what you have unspooled. Is this good or is this bad?

The prose is quite delectable; it just has this tendency to produce soporific effects, which should not be akin to literary writing because there is a kind of stylistic prose that still manages to hook the reader. And the structure has no identifiable order, so the reader is faced with the challenge of making sense of the English patient’s mystery. Who is he? What was he doing before he got burned? How can one be so sure that he’s English if his skin cannot be recognized and cannot be touched? Is his accent enough to recognize his nationality?

He turns his dark face with its grey eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

The theme of national identity is explored all throughout the novel. The English patient is mistaken for a spy because his last name sounds too foreign. Kip embraces the Western ideas as the ideal ones despite his family’s distrust for anything from the West. However, he detaches himself from the West at the height of the war. The nationality of these two characters’ contributed greatly in determining the choices that they have and the outcome of their lives.

The structure also shifts unpredictably. One moment, the focus is on the English patient. Then it shifts to descriptions of the desert. Then on Hana. Then on ruminations. Then on Caravaggio, an old family friend of Hana. Then on Kip. Then on bomb detonations. And so on.

[When we are young we do not look into mirrors. It is when we are old, concerned with our name, our legend, what our lives will mean to the future. We become vain with the names we own, our claims to have been the first eyes, the strongest army, the cleverest merchant. It is when he is old that Narcissus wants a graven image of himself.]

This is an ingenious way of storytelling, but one has to concentrate hard to keep building the picture. Everything is so hazy and the development has a lazy feel to it. The characters move about in barren and isolated places. These settings allow the reader to view the characters more closely because of the absence of exterior movements. The novel could have been a series of beautiful portraits, but the interruptions are just too jarring to be able to come up with even one crisp sketch.

In an interview, the author mentioned that his prose is used to create landscapes that would complement the novel’s poeticism. But what is one to expect if the landscape itself is dry and desolate? Is one expected to be riveted by such images? I myself felt a depletion of energy that is reserved for plodding with enthusiasm and for caring for the characters. Unfortunately, my tank was emptied. Too many ponderings, too many symbols, too many hours spent in the hope of seeing the beauty of it. I couldn’t care less anymore.

[But we were interested in how our lives could mean something to the past. We sailed into the past. We were young. We knew power and great finance were temporary things. We all slept with Herodotus.]

I tried reading it everywhere just to see if there’s a certain kind of ambiance that would help me appreciate this. I read it at the office, at my room at the dead of the night, at my room bathed in afternoon sunshine, on the bus with the wind attempting to blow the pages. But nothing, no specific place or time would help me. So yes, it was like drag me until page 200 and I’ll cross my fingers until it gets better.

I was utterly relieved when one of my friends remarked that the film adaptation is so beautiful as opposed to the book. She also suffered intense boredom, saying it with a tongue-clucking conviction. I want to confess that I might just have misread it, but no, I’m going to stick with what I have said. I’ll probably look for a copy of the film though.


Dates Read: June 30 to July 24, 2011

No. of Pages: 302

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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6 Comments

  1. I could still remember the setting of this novel even if I’ve read it three years ago. I think Oondatje intended the soporific effect that you’re saying, in the same way time stops, people used to say, when you’re in the eye of a storm. The language is rich, and this rings true with his other novels, like Anil’s Ghost. (His language is also very similar with Don DeLillo, particularly with The Body Artist. Simple and soporific.)

    With the shifting “structure” (“no identifiable order”) of storytelling, I think it rhymes with the barren landscape, the chaos, the spoils of war written all over the setting. It must have been as fragmented as the senses one feels during a war: stunned, shell-shocked to the point of tending to piece together stories, memories. The English Patient’s mystery is so alive and real in the midst of war, as in the midst of all the destruction happening, it’s the only narrative about construction (may it be national identity or pure sentiments).

    I know your feeling that “you don’t quite know what to do with what you have unspooled” after reading the novel, but I think it really should be. I should reread the book, but back then I got the impression that I shouldn’t really try hard in translating symbols or “building a picture”, but to simply admire the enigma that is the English Patient, and the stunningly vivid setting of barren landscapes and buildings which went under heavy shelling and the pauses and the silences and whatnot.

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    • Wow, thanks for reading this extensively. I often wonder why I’m doing all this blogging when I seldom get comments such as this. I am very humbled and I love the way you used my words to overturn my thoughts on it. It seems as if you used my words against me. ;)

      But as you can see, this novel didn’t have the same effect on me as it did for you. Perhaps it was read at a wrong time. I mentioned somewhere that my feelings for a book are mightily affected by the things going on in my life. So yeah, you convinced me to reread this, but not now. Maybe when I’m older?

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  2. I read another Ondaatje novel, Diverdiso (sp?) and felt frustrated at the way he decided to unspool the action. I was intrigued at the choices he made, but more irritated than intrigued.

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  3. I didn’t like either the book or the movie, to be honest. It jumped around too much. As you say, the prose was beautiful…and it WAS a good story…but, yet, I was so bored! I’ll probably try another book by the author some day, though. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood for this one.

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