Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“All I ever wanted was a world without maps.”

Often regarded as one of Canada's greatest living writers, Michael Ondaatje doesn't strike me as an author who would reach a wide audience at all. Granted, my only exposure to his writing is with this particular novel but it is far too abstract, fragmented and heavily infused with poetic language to appeal to many readers. Visit any used book store or second-hand thrift shop (with a book section) here in Toronto, and I can guarantee you that several copies of this novel--along with other titles by the author--can more often than not be found at low bargain prices or in the "free bin." Most people don't seem particularly fond of Ondaatje or The English Patient in particular, and they seem more than happy to be rid of it, which helps to partially explain the overwhelming amount of copies floating around. 

I have been avoiding this novel for years and probably never would have picked up this novel had it not been for my Canadian Reading Project. Even though I don't feel that all of the negative flak it tends to receive is completely warranted, it is perfectly understandable why so many people are keen to express their vitriolic hatred towards this novel. Those looking for a well-told story are bound to be disappointed and frustrated. The narrative is convoluted and disorienting: jumping around between past and present, distorted by fragments of memory; the characters exist on the periphery, obscured by shadows. It does not surprise me that Ondaatje was a poet before turning towards fiction because his writing revels in lyrical diction, elevated language and imagery. There is no denying that the prose is beautiful, sensual and even provocative at times (bringing to mind the writings of Virginia Woolf minus the stream-of-consciousness) but it is overdone, inadvertently encouraging mockery. At one point, Ondaatje tries to convey the overflowing passion between the mysterious pilot and his lover by describing one of their sexual experiences together where he licks up her menstrual blood. Sorry, but that is just gross no matter how eloquently one might describe this act. There does exist scattered moments of stylistic virtuoso and profound insight but the novel ultimately collapses under the weight of its superfluous purple prose--all style, very little substance. Ondaatje would much rather focus on establishing a specific mood or explore the fallibility of memory. I don't usually mind this type of poetic style but he gets too caught up in trivialities and seems a little smug in showcasing his literary pretensions.

It's the end of WWII, a Canadian nurse from Toronto (bonus points) is caring for a severely burnt patient at an abandoned Italian villa where two other people eventually enter their little sanctuary. Utilizing shifting character perspectives and flashbacks, the story (or lack thereof) unfolds in a cryptic fashion shrouded in ambiguity. We get glimpses of these people but the reader is always kept at a distance. The basic premise of the novel is intriguing enough but I really wish Ondaatje had spent more time fleshing out the different characters and focused more on the story, instead of leaving it dormant and veering off into elaborately discursive territory. I'm no medical doctor, but it bothered me that this pilot who is suffering from life-threatening burns could stay alive so long with only the aid of morphine and still be able to maintain complete mental acuity. This novel could have been a sweeping historical epic with a powerful love story at its core but Ondaatje has other intentions. If he somehow managed to balance his poetic aspirations and brand of literary impressionism with developing a solid story containing believable, strong, well-rounded characters, he might have been able to achieve something truly spectacular. 

Taking into consideration that very little action takes place in the novel, it baffles me that it was even adapted into an Oscar winning film. To my mind, the end result can only be disastrous and I am very curious to watch that train-wreck unfold on the screen. My two star rating might seem a tad generous but I didn't find the novel to be completely without merit, even though my general impression was that of indifference. Ondaatje might be self-indulgent but his writing can be quite beautiful and enrapturing in small doses.


This novel is part of my Canadian Reading Project.


  1. Ah, I admire you! I couldn't have done it. Just reading your review makes me whoozy (not from your review .... your review is excellent ..... but from the thought of reading this book :-P ) I have such a bad opinion of Canadian novels already ...... I swear I will not read one unless you give it at least four stars. Thank you for rescuing me from this book; it might have been one that I picked up to try but no more! It sounds like it might be good for starting fires with though ..... ;-)

    The good news is that Anne of Green Gables is coming up on your list. One of my favourites. I'd also recommend Rilla of Ingleside, which I actually enjoyed even more than AoGG. It's a more mature book and it gives very valuable insight into a Canadian town at the beginning of and during WWI. Oh, and after you read AoGG, you just have to watch the Kevin Sullivan movie of it starring Megan Followes, if you haven't already. Promise?

    Best of luck with your continuing reads, Jason. I hope you hit a "keeper" soon!

  2. Don't worry, your aversion to Canadian literature is quite understandable. I'm no big fan either and one has to get through so much trash to find the hidden gems. I like to think of myself as performing some kind of public service with this project, a way to inform others of which novels to avoid like the plague and which are worth reading. I probably wouldn't go so far as using "The English Patient" as kindling but this novel is mediocre at best. Your time might be better off spent on wading through Infinite Jest :P

    Anne of Green Gables sounds like one of the more promising reads on the list. Hmmm...I'll keep Rilla of Ingleside in mind if the former proves to my liking. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Fiiiiinnnnneeeeee, I'll watch the movie too. Pinky swear. :P

    1. LOL! Did you know that in Japan, pink promise is called yubikiri ( 指切り? ), which literally mean "finger-cut-off"? The person who breaks the promise must cut of his/her pinky finger.

      Just sayin' ! ;-)

  3. Those Japanese sure do value honor. I'll be more cautious next time before saying "Pinky swear" lol