April 7, 2014

The English Patient

I first read The English Patient in Atbara in northern Sudan, and the wonderful Lee Miller photo on the cover echoed the landscape. For a couple of years I couldn't get enough of the book, rereading it every few months. The sentences are so carefully wrought, the language always riskily fresh:

"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps. I carried Katharine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumor of wells. In the palace of winds."

Though the characterization is at times awkward - a by-product of Ondaatje's risk-taking - one falls achingly in love with the characters.

Ondaatje writes piecemeal, crafting scenes, honing characters, and then hoping for a narrative. He has said that the first section he wrote was Caravaggio's theft of the camera in the hotel. The English patient's voice arrived with the word "aerodrome."

Count Ladislaus de Almásy, Ralph Bagnold, Hassanein Bey, and certain others mentioned in the book were genuine desert explorers. The real Almásy was, however, gay.

Though the setting is exotic, some of the Katharine/Geoffrey Clifton/Ladislaus de Almásy triangle may be related to Ondaatje's theft of Kim Ondaatje (thin, blonde, artsy) from her professor husband in Ontario.

(An extended aside: Ondaatje's books echo each other, so rereading them is a curiously deep and wide experience. Anna in Divisadero says: "We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories." Here are some echoes.

Names in The English Patient: Hana, Clara, Kip. Names in Divisadero: Anna, Claire, Coop. Anna and Hana also chimes with Anil from Anil's Ghost.

Kip is a Sikh, a group that has a "mystical affinity for machines." Coop prefers metal to wood: "all those varieties and modes of metal life." Kip is a sapper, dismantling bombs. Coop "loved risk and could be passive around danger."

When Coop loses his memory after being tortured, Claire pretends to be Anna. Anil buys her brother's name for "one hundred saved rupees, a pen set he had been eyeing for some time, a tin of fifty Gold Leaf cigarettes she had found, and a sexual favor." In Divisadero, Roman and Marie-Neige pretend to be brother and sister. "A family keeps its secrets," notes Anna.

Coop is tortured in Divisadero. Caravaggio is tortured in The English Patient.

Both Caravaggio and Rafael's thief father find their wives during or in the aftermath of robberies.

In The English Patient, Kip subsists on raw vegetables and herbs. In Divisadero, Rafael always seems to have raw herbs about him.

In Divisadero, Anna brings soap with her "from another world." In Running in the Family, a boar steals Ondaatje's Pear's transparent soap, which he has carried through the filthy hotels of Africa.

Kip and Coop both refuse drugs.

Caravaggio and Rafael are both named for Italian painters.

In Coming Through Slaughter, Buddy Bolden smacks and shatters a window pane. In Divisadero, Anna shoves a triangle of glass into her father's shoulder. Later in Divisadero, Lucien receives a splinter of glass in his eye.)

The themes of The English Patient include identity, religions, encounters across cultures, and youth/age. At one point the English patient says:

"There's a painting by Caravaggio, done late in his life. David with the Head of Goliath. In it, the young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head of Goliath, ravaged and old. But that is not the true sadness in the picture. It is assumed that the face of David is a portrait of the youthful Caravaggio and the head of Goliath is a portrait of him as an older man, how he looked when he did the painting. Youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand. The judging of ones's own mortality. I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David."

But the thief Caravaggio is of course also a portrait of Ondaatje, and one could surmise that the older Ondaatje is judging the young self who committed the infidelities with an older woman.

The English Patient gathers many other works into its pages: Anna Karenina, Kim (echoing his first wife's name, and also chiming with Kip), Herodotus's Histories, A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Sometime a fire" is from a speech by Puck), Paradise Lost, and jazz lyrics, among others.

The book does not entirely work. The final sections, in which Kip, an Indian Sikh, hears of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagines "all Asia on fire," then threatens the English patient and drives off in a rage, are silly. As is "meet me at the moondial." Overall, Kip is the least convincing character. His actions lack coherence. However, the scenes in which he watches the Virgin come across the water, and his hours in deserted Naples are lovely.

Ondaatje's earlier books are wonderful. In the Skin of the Lion and Running in the Family have the same romantic, piecemeal, slightly insane quality I love in The English Patient. Unfortunately, as so often seems to be the case, the success of The English Patient appears to have had a negative effect on Ondaatje's writing. Anil's Ghost feels forced and thin, Divisadero doesn't work structurally, and The Cat's Table is too light.

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