Arts You Are What You Read Muse

You Are What You Read: The English Patient

Sophie Lutkin on the lasting influence Ondaatje’s novel has had on her life.

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Image Credit: Random House USA , 1996

Editor's note: In this week's edition of You Are What You Read the writer has chosen to describe her experiences of the text in third person for stylistic purposes.

“Read Ondaatje’s The English Patient”. Scrawled in green ink in an exercise book dating back to July 2016 was this mysterious, but not uninviting, request. When the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl picked up her book the following week to receive the feedback from her English homework, her eyes rested on this tempting marginalia. Immediately after the last bell had rung for the day, she  walked  the familiar path to the library and took down a single book from the shelves.

In just over three hours she had navigated the intimacy of the Egyptian desert and the quiet informality of the Villa San Girolamo. She had seen the young nurse, Hana, squeeze water onto the blackened body of her “despairing saint”; observed the tenderness with which the Bedouin had passed soft dates from their mouth into his own and  traced the vaccination scar on the right arm of his lover. She had watched as the war-torn lives of Caravaggio, Kirpal ‘Kip’ Singh, Hana, and her English patient coalesced around the abandoned Italian villa, where “doors opened into landscape” and bombs lay hidden under the keys of a piano.

The recipient of the 1992 Booker Prize and more recently, the 2018 Golden Man Booker Prize, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a lyrical exploration into the malleability of history, the precedence of memory, and the palimpsestic nature of both self and landscape. Set against the backdrop of World War Two, it is also a novel concerned with what and where ‘home’ is during a time of crisis—a fitting sentiment for these uncertain times.

Writing through brush strokes, Ondaatje also reflects on what constitutes a ‘family’: a Canadian thief, a Sikh British Army sapper, a badly-burned Englishman and a Canadian Army nurse are all united through the refuge they find in the Villa San Girolamo. In other words, their cohabitation is defined by what they have lost, what they have left behind, as a result of the war.

The schoolgirl was enamoured by the poetics of Ondaatje’s prose; introspective yet impassioned, vigorous and yet serene, it was a style of writing she had not yet encountered.  Settled  between the folds of her duvet, she learnt the story behind the faltering swagger of Caravaggio, the burns of the English patient, the stubborn stoicism of Hana, the meticulousness of that “tentative visitor” to the villa, Kip.She watched friendship—even love—grow within the remaining walls of the Villa San Girolamo.

She has since looked for traces of these characters on trains, in classrooms, in meadows, on car journeys, in university halls, in kitchens, on river banks, in libraries. Her beloved copy, the spine broken in several places, the pages mercilessly pencilled and underlined, has crossed counties as well as countries, just as Ondaatje travels with us across Egyptian sands and the countryside of Suffolk, to the heat of the Punjab and the crowded wards of the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. She had read it in the evenings before collecting her GCSE and A Level results, in intimidating halls before interviews, in her bedroom the day after her grandad passed away, on aeroplanes in the small hours of the morning. Those readings are her own “communal histories, communal books”.

Accepting the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018, Ondaatje acknowledged that writing The English Patient granted him “freedom”. Having taught for many years, he decided to leave his job in order to wholly devote himself to the novel he was in the process of writing. Such perseverance of spirit has indelibly marked the pages of his work. It is located within Kip’s decision to leave the villa at the close of the novel; conversely, in Hana’s resolve to stay after her fellow nurses have all evacuated; and finally, in her patient’s unwavering attachment to his copy of Herodotus’ The Histories—the only object to survive the fire which consumed his flesh.

Four years on, and the schoolgirl clings to her edition of The English Patient as  tightly as the eponymous protagonist holds onto The Histories. It is the first book she packs travelling to and from university, the first book she consults when in need of guidance or comfort. Four years on, and she is still indebted to the hand that hastily scribbled those few words in the corner of her exercise book. It is because of that hand that her own continues to write.

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