Saturday, December 12, 2015

Approaching Ondaatje's "The English Patient"

As my South Asian Literature course enters its final phase, we have begun reading Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. I had never read this work before, but have taught Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost and read his collection of poems, The Cinnamon Peeler. I have always been aware, however, of the great reputation of The English Patient, winner of the Booker Prize, and I feel I should have read it long ago. However, as the saying goes, better late than never.

Having begun reading The English Patient, I find myself recalling several literary works, including Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences. Abandonment as an existential reality seems to unite all these works.

The main character in The English Patient fell from the sky after his plane was shot down over the Sahara desert during the Second World War and was rescued by Bedouins. Soon, we see this badly wounded person, the English patient, being taken care of by a nurse in Italy. His memories constitute a major part of the novel as it evolves. I am not able at this point to say much, but I am eagerly following the story, with the figure of the wartime nurse reminding me of Florence Nightingale.

Although I have only started reading The English Patient, I have begun to notice the pain that permeates it, much as it does in Anil's Ghost and "Letters and Other Worlds,"one of the poems in The Cinnamon Peeler. It is tempting to surmise that Ondaatje's vision of the human condition is rather somber. That is my initial impression, to be corrected or vindicated through further reading of Ondaatje's work.

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