Book Review, Fiction

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

English patient A Booker Prize winner. I don’t know if I am the only one who finds most of the Booker prize winners a tad boring and also a tad undeserving. But this has happened more than once now and I am beginning to wonder. But whatever it may be, the fact is that I found this ‘famous’ book wanting.

The premise is brilliant though seems slightly overused now – the story is set on four diverse characters scarred by war (in this case WWII) who come together by chance in an abandoned hospital in Italy. The story follows every character’s story from its origins and how the war changed everything – personal to ideological. How an impersonal war became all too personal.

The characters are the ‘English Patient’ – a completely burnt patient whose very identity is not known and apparently he does not remember, Hana – the nurse who chose to nurse him alone after the other nurses moved away to a safer location, Caravaggio – a thief who is also an uncle of Hana and Kim (Kirpal Singh), an Indian sapper with the British Army.

All four have lost too many things in the war, beyond repair and it would seem, beyond any scope of understanding. The story is about how they collide with each other in the hospital and how they begin to understand each other’s life even though everything falls apart at the end – as is painfully obvious from the start.

So far so good. The first problem I have is that I like the characters in a book to speak for themselves and not have the writer say it and make it obvious. Secondly, the characters left me cold except on certain occasions. There was just not much flesh on them to make them close to you. Everything was being felt in the abstract. Maybe that was the whole intention of the book – of having a to be hazy and dreamy feel to the narrative. But atleast for me, it didn’t work out.

You saw the ending before it came. The narrative was disjointed and beginning-ending was rambling at time. The account of the desert and its explorations by the mysterious ‘English Patient’ was a redeeming part of the book but it went on for too long and somehow made you lose the link with the rest of the book. Too much attention was there on the patient and the others were given hurried characteristics that made them seem slightly two dimensional.

The book picked up only at the very end when the true identity of the English Patient was revealed and the situation that develops when Kim confronts the English patient with the news of the bombing of Hiroshima which shook his belief underpinnings was memorable, but it was too late for me at any rate.

I don’t know whether I would watch the movie anytime soon. I hope it is better than its source…


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