Saturday, January 20, 2007

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Of all the books I've read this year, the prose in this one is probably the most striking:

They are in the botanical garden, near the Cathedral of All Saints. She sees one tear and leans forward and licks it, taking it into her mouth. As she has taken the blood from his hand when he cut himself cooking for her. Blood. Tear. He feels that everything is missing from his body, feels he contains smoke.

That's one of many passages that stood out to me. The metaphors, as the best ones do, always seem to describe the way one feels with a precision that you never knew existed. I've felt like I've "contain[ed] smoke," but until I read that passage I didn't know how to describe it.

Still, this is the kind of book my girlfriend would hate. There's not much in the way of a plot--It opens as a young nurse, Hana, tends for a badly burned man with no name in an Italian villa ruined by World War II. Later she and "the English Patient" are joined by Caravaggio, a thief she knew in her youth, and Kip, a young Indian sapper (a person who finds and defuses bombs for the military.) That's about it. There are flashbacks--oh so many flashbacks--and they seem to double back on themselves, in the way that the English Patient's flashback narrative might touch upon an event in brief, and then a chapter later double back and go through the entire thing again, revealing new details. Narratives are chopped up and sprinkled through the book piecemeal with little regard to chronology. There is nothing really remarkable about the beginning or the end that make them recognizable as such.

Normally, these kind of things don't bother me much. But I, like Elaine screaming "just die already!," find them a little grating and confusing in this novel. I feel like to be completely appreciated it needs more patience than I was willing to give it, because the characters really aren't engaging enough to make me want to read with a fine tooth comb, so to speak.

I have to write a paper on this book by the end of this month, though, so maybe I'll come to understand it a little better.

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