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A lyrical saga of love and betrayal in wartime
Jul 22, 2009 07:58 PM 6084 Views
(Updated Jul 22, 2009 08:01 PM)



A few days back while traveling, a certain passage from the book ‘The English patient’ came into my mind and would just not leave me. It almost spoiled my vacation – I could not wait to get home and read this passage from the book.

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, ….characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography--to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps."

And this is just a fraction of the Masterpiece called The English patient by Michel Ondaatje; the book is as vast and as timeless as the quote itself. Ever since I have entered the world of books, I have classified them as books that stay with you and books you forget. I clearly remember the introspective period of life when I first read the English patient - I was hypnotized for days to come. (Luckily I read it before I saw the movie which in itself is another masterpiece.) And now after all these years I wondered why this passage suddenly came into my mind.

So, after I scanned thru the book again with the urgency of a lost soul without the words in its pages, I realized, it had been with me ever since I went thru the book years back. It had affected and altered me in subtle yet sure ways. And it keeps coming back to me whenever I am confronted with something as profound as the book itself. Probably that is the reason I felt like taking these words out that are mine, but were evoked and handed over to me by Ondaatje through The English Patient.

Almost all the literary circles agree that the book is a contemporary classic. It won Booker prize for fiction for the year 1992 (Once again I can not miss a connection between a sad and poignant theme with the booker prize). Canadian-Sri Lankan Ondaatje used to be a poet before writing novels and this is clearly visible in his writing style. The language used is essentially poetic and somewhat abstract. The book for the most part is all about character development; it keeps going back in time to the past of each character, and often switches viewpoints. The long passages through which Almásy reveals the past are intriguing, convincing, lyrical and hypnotic.

The period of the book is the ending time of World War II and the story revolves around the life of 4 protagonists. Hana – A Canadian nurse, László de Almásy/The English patient – a Hungarian desert explorer, Hana’s old acquaintance David Caravaggio and an Indian sapper Kip. The narrative runs in two interwoven lines – we can safely say one is Almásy’s story set in the past and another is Hana’s story in the present. 19 year old Hana has seen enough of war in her otherwise short lifetime and is therefore desensitized and traumatized to quite an extent. ("I leaned forward to close a dead soldier's eyes, and he opened them and sneered, "Can't wait to have me dead? You bit**!" He sat up and swept everything on my tray to the floor. So furious. Who would want to die like that? To die with that kind of anger.

I know death now, David. I know all the smells; I know how to divert them from agony…”). Yet she is sympathetic enough to stay back in an abandoned Italian villa with the severely burnt English patient for the simple reason that he could not be moved. Soon she is joined by David Caravaggio, who has got his own war secrets and is determined to find out the true identity of the English patient. Then comes the strangely detached Indian sapper Kirpal Singh or Kip, who works for the British army and detonates bombs hidden by the allies. And if you’re beginning to think this is a morbid book about death and bombs, let me talk about Almásy and his lover, Katherine Clifton.

New entrants to the circle of desert researchers (and the gypsy lifestyle of Almásy) are the British intelligent agent Geoffrey Clifton and his wife Katherine Clifton. Katherine, upon meeting Almásy for the first time mentions that she was impressed by his monograph on the desert – “such a long paper with so few adjectives.” And Almásy’s life is never to be the same again since he hears a recitation by Katherine from the history book by Herodotus. "That night I fell in love with a voice. Only a voice. I wanted to hear nothing more.” And since then in spite of their trying to avoid each other, they are slowly yet definitely drawn closer by fate.

Almásy secretly follows her into the local market to ensure her safety; wants to avoid situations where he will be left alone with Katherine but all the while writing about her in his notebook (“Am I K in your book? I think I must be”). And Katherine, being the much loved wife of Geoffrey, hates lies and deception. Yet both are clearly aware of the undercurrent of an intense and passionate attraction all the time. Eventually they give in to it and thus start one of the most beautiful romances I have ever read about. In his notes Almásy observes – “There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.”

Needless to say the end is as fitting and profound as the story itself.I would recommend this book to people who are interested in thought provoking and worthwhile reads. It might not be a quick read, so take as much time as you want to, it will stay with you for the times to come. To me the beauty of the book lies in this simple fact. Each time I pick this book up; I can just turn to a page at random and swept away again into the world of Count Almásy, into the North African desert and the palace of winds, finding things I hadn't noticed before.

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English Patient, The - Michael Ondaatje