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17 December, 2004

BOOK REVIEW: The English Patient

‘If I gave you my life, you would drop it. Wouldn’t you?’

But this is one book you wouldn’t drop in a hurry, if ever. Ondaatje’s tale of love, life and wandering, is revealed through the memories of a burnt, faceless man who is believed to be English despite his tarred skin.

Set in post-war Italy, The English Patient focuses on four survivors coming to terms with the devastating effects of war, with each other, and with themselves – Hana, a nurse, whose love for the charred ‘Englishman’ in her care shifts to a more fulfilling kind with a brown-skinned Sikh sapper; Carravagio, a small-time thief and intelligence agent who ‘lost his nerve’ when his thumbs become a casualty of the war; Kirpal Singh (Kip), a Sikh fighting for his Imperial masters; and the blackened remnant of the English Patient, kept alive by his thoughts of Katharine, a love others call adulterous.

The book meanders through images of the monochrome desert, interspersed with memories of a love found and lost, of the futility of borders between people and nations, and of betrayals. ‘…cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history – how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love…’ One gets caught in the plot as the true identity of the patient is revealed in a series of morphine-induced wanderings of his words,a tale of passion that led to a plane crash resulting in the loss of his beloved… and himself… ‘from this moment we will either find or lose our souls…’

Each character is finely drawn and we are offered more than a glimpse into their personalities through past events, their thoughts, and from each other. The patient thinks himself to be ‘at a cynical stage of life’ and mistrusts words because they ‘bend emotions like sticks in water’; he whose life was governed by words spoken and rumoured, by histories written and unwritten, by chartered maps, he who did not enjoy poetry until a woman recited it to him. This is in contrast with his present state as he hides behind his words and effectively withholds his identity till the end. As for Carravagio, we see a man who feels safest in silence, when revealing nothing; a man who always sank into love, and now drowning in darkness. Hana and Kip – youths not yet mortal, one who stopped looking at mirrors, and the other who does not need mirrors. And Katharine, whose absence is ever present in the patient’s mind, like the desert; a woman whose ‘terrible conscience’ and hatred of lies created walls in their love. The English Patient is a remarkable study of contrasts, of colour and attitudes towards life.

What is amazing is the lyrical quality and narrative impact that is heightened when one reads it aloud. The desert as a metaphor of life, quest, loss and promise is beautifully portrayed. Much can be learnt from this book, about the usage of words, how it sounds, and how that can be translated into a masterpiece that is visually breathtaking. The brushstrokes of a writer… or a poet you will wonder once you have read this book.

‘Words, they do have a power…’

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4 Comments:

Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Glad to have you back! And a spectacular review! By the way, I left some comments on your work elsewhere (your own page) :)

17 December, 2004 11:08  
Blogger Alex said...

thanks a lot... and, yes, i did read your comments :-)

17 December, 2004 11:48  
Blogger Max Babi said...

Hey Nisha,
You snatched this review from
my teeth - I was just beginning to
write it...I loved the novel, and it
haunted me for a year -so I decided
to write a review. But alas !
Good review though, do write more.
cheers !

17 December, 2004 18:35  
Blogger Nakul said...

The English Patient is one of the loveliest books ever. It rather brought to mind E. M. Forster's old remark, 'If I ever had to choose between betraying my friend and betraying my country, I hope I should have the courage to betray my country.'

19 December, 2004 17:22  

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