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Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

This novel is set in a Tuscan villa towards the end of World War II. There are essentially four people involved – a Canadian nurse, Hana, a Canadian soldier, Caravaggio, who is also a thief, a spy and a morphine addict, Kip, the Indian sapper and the eponymous but nameless English patient, a victim of a plane crash, burned, injured and unable to move, nursed by Hana. Caravaggio with his drug problem brought on by having been tortured, Hana, who has lost her boyfriend, their baby and, more recently, her father and the English patient are all under extreme psychological pressure. Only Kip, the sapper, who has a busy job, as the hospital used to be in German hands and they have mined it, can be said to be normal. Who is the English patient? Is he, in fact, the Hungarian explorer, Almasy? Or does it matter? For what makes this book such a fine book is not the story or even the identity of the characters but the beautiful poetic descriptions Ondaatje give us, the dreamlike landscape and atmosphere he makes out of Italy and North Africa and the shifting relationships between the four main characters. With Ondaatje, everything imperceptibly moves in relationship to everything else so we never exactly know what is what, who is who and what is coming.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by McClelland and Stewart