Every once in a while — sometimes in a very long while — you come across a book that you wish would not finish. You savour each sentence, linger long over each turning page, go back every once in a while and often put the book down to abs orb the full meaning of what has just been read. Such was Graham Greene’s The End of an Affair which I caressed slowly to its last page in a small district town. Such has been The Great Gatsby which I end up reading every couple of years and never fail to turn up some new and exciting insight. And this month it has been Michael Ondaatje’s marvellous poem of a novel, The English Patient.
There are several striking aspects of the novel, each deserving an informed essay. The novel’s form, for instance: its perspectives shift as quickly and seamlessly as the desert sands it describes and the past intertwines intensely with the present until each moment actually becomes timeless. Or the impact of war on the four fractured lives thrown together in an abandoned and half destroyed Tuscany villa — the burnt, almost-dead patient Almasy sifting through his still glistening memories, the thumbless thief Caravaggio, the partially shell shocked nurse Hana and the intensely focused Sikh sapper, Kip. The villa itself, with its overgrown garden, its crucifix working as a scarecrow, its landmines, its locked-up rooms much like the souls of the characters which open but gradually to reveal their secrets, can be a subject for separate study. As can the artful making of this luminous novel into a searing movie with its haunting imagery and powerful portrayal: Ralph Fiennes is as definitely the English patient as Peter O’ Toole is Lawrence of Arabia.
But the book’s defining aspect is Ondaatje’s incredible language, the language of a spare miniaturist using the least strokes to create a haunting effect, his pen moving as delicately as Katherine Clifton’s paintbrush in the opening scene of the film. Like the time when Caravaggio watches the Italian night settling down around him: “The noise of trees, the breaking of moon into silver fish bouncing off the leaves of asters outside. The moon is on him like skin, a sheaf of water.” Or his description of the “deepest sorrow….Where the only way to survive is to excavate everything.” Or the carelessly strewn bits of throwaway wisdom: “Birds prefer trees with dead branches. They have complete vistas from where they perch. They can take off in any direction.”
Ondaatje rises to sublime heights when describing the obsessions at the core of the novel, obsessions beyond reason, obsessions both destructive and redemptive. The most powerful passions are transmitted with a few well chosen words, or even with silences. The obsession of Almasy and his group of explorers with the desert, forever sailing into the past to uncover its buried secrets, searching for the eternal lost oasis. “In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence.” Or the obsession of Hana with the English patient, whom she must nurse even when he is beyond nursing. The obsession of Caravaggio to unravel the true identity of the English patient by making him talk, uncaring that the patient will soon be dead, or in a way died already when he fell burning out of the sky. But the thief must know, even as he shares the patient’s morphine to still, for a moment, their shared destiny of intense pain. And Hana’s obsession with Kip as she yearns to redeem through love his soul deadened by battle, forever listening for the false step, the crossed wire, the hidden death. Kip’s obsession with his profession, his desire to defuse the last possible landmine, to the extent that he cannot even listen to a piano without fearing that it will blow up.
And towering above all, the doomed obsession of Almasy and Katherine, all “the paranoia and claustrophobia of hidden love,” played out in a shuttered room above the bazaar of imported parrots, in the colonial hallways and in the indigo markets of Cairo. He listens to her with the classical face, reciting poetry across a desert fire and falls in love with a voice. “Only a voice. I wanted to hear nothing more.” From then on it is a struggle between betrayal and honour, a plummeting into the desert in a flurry of flames, an obsession with the hollow at the base of a neck, with perspiration on a swerving knee during a long hot journey. And in the end “it is not the morality, it is how much you can bear.”
What does one do with a book like that? Except read it again and again.