The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient Michael Ondaatje

“This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.”


The English Patient, 1992 Booker Prize winning novel, is written by a Sri Lankan born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. It tells the stories of four characters: the eponymous protagonist, a Canadian nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief. Generally told in third-person omniscient point of view, the novel sets primarily in a small villa near Florence, Italy during the Italian Campaign of World War II.

The eponymous character is unrecognisably burnt from a plane crash and can barely speak. His charred body is being care by a young army nurse named Hana. The European war has just ended and though the other nurses and patients have left the villa, Hana decides to stay in the villa with her English patient as his body is still fragile. Caravaggio, Hana’s old family friend, comes to the villa after hearing about her while he was recuperating in a nearby hospital. One night, Hana is playing on the piano and hearing her play, two soldiers enter the villa. One of them is Kip, an Indian Sikh and a sapper from the British Army trained to diffuse bombs. Kip decides to stay at the villa in order to clear some unexploded bombs.

Slowly the English patient unfolds his past to the others. He talks about his life and his affair with a married woman prior to the accident that gave him the injuries. Kip and the English patient get along very well, as they both share similar interests and enjoy talking to each other. He feels a strong attraction to Hana, and soon they become lovers.

These four people reside in the villa are different in appearances and characteristics but equally hurt and scarred by their memory, loss and regrets. Tormenting events of war traumatised these characters. Through their stories, Ondaatje poetically interweave nationalism, identity, survival, love and relationship. The symbolic portrayal of desert is profound and mesmerising. Fragmented but astute narrative is somewhat appealing and evocative.

The book was adapted to film in 1996 and won many accolades. I watched it a few years back and distinctly remember I hated it despite many people’s praise for it. The movie focused more on the love affair between the English patient and his lover, I think. I loathe any form of art that portrays adultery as a great love story. Some might point out the good things about the film but how I see it was glorifying the adultery as a romantic film. I don’t know why or how I have this book on my shelf but the movie experience somehow makes me reluctant to read the novel. My humble apology to the writer for judging a book by its film adaptation. In fact, it is such a superb novel with reflective and poetic tone. Slightly a slow read at first for its condensed narration in early chapters but I picked up the pace later.


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