Thursday, December 17, 2009

The English Patient

The English PatientA burned English patient is bedridden in an Italian villa. He doesn't remember his name. Hana, a nurse from Toronto, has chosen to take care of him, having decided to stay behind after the war ended. The patient has vague recollections of the past: a plane crash, a desert in Cairo. And whenever morphine shots are administered to him, he breathes the name of a woman.

The English Patient (1992) sounds a lot like poetry in prose. Michael Oondatje, originally from Sri Lanka, veers away from the traditional linear style of writing—the scenes don't come in chronological order. The tone also shifts from first- to third-person.

As a whole, it's a love story staged in a background of World War II. Hana and Kip. The English and Katharine. Unlike mainstream novels about love, this novel excels at being impersonal. Which is why I liked it: Michael Oondatje doesn't overdo storytelling.

Some lines that struck me:

“Hello Buddy, good-bye Buddy. Caring was brief. There was a contract only in death. Nothing in her spirit or past had taught her to be a nurse. But cutting her hair was a contract, and it lasted until they were bivouacked in the Villa San Girolamo north of Florence.”

“When someone speaks he looks at a mouth, not eyes and their colours, which, it seems to him, will always alter depending on the light of a room, the minute of the day. Mouths reveal insecurity or smugness or any other point of the spectrum of character. For him, they are the most intricate aspect of faces. He's never sure what an eye reveals. But he can read how mouths darken into callousness, suggest tenderness. One can often misjudge an eye from its reaction to a simple beam of sunlight.”

“With the help of an anecdote, I fell in love. Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

1 comment:

  1. Michael Ondaatje is so great! I especially love his poem, "The Cinnamon Peeler" and this line from the same book you're quoting:

    "She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water."

    -Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

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