Sunday, August 27, 2017

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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 by 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.
This was my third time reading The English Patient. I have a handful of books that I re-read over and over, and this one ages beautifully. Ondaatje's novel weaves between a present day in Italy at the end of World War II and flashbacks to each character's experiences before and during the war. Hana, a nurse, tends to a nameless patient in an abandoned villa after Allied forces have left the town behind. As the novel progresses, they are joined by Carvaggio, a former thief, spy, and friend of Hana's father, and Kip, a bomb diffuser dismantling bombs and land mines left in the wake of battle. It's a love story--Kip and Hana quickly become involved, and the nameless patient reveals his own saga through stories and flashbacks--but it's also a story about memory and history and the marks we leave on each other.

The love stories are particularly sad and beautiful, and Ondaatje has a gift for the tiny moment. The reason I keep coming back to this novel how artfully Ondaatje can be with a sentence. He writes largely in the present tense, but slips backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time seamlessly. Each character gets a chance at these moments of introspection, and each gets their own voice. This, from Carvaggio as he watches Hana and remembers his wife: "Nowadays he doesn't think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weight of her wrist on his heart during the night." His sentences are spare--often void of conjunctions or adverbs--but still evocative and descriptive. This isn't Hemingway leaving us to fill in the emotionality of a scene. Another slip through time when the patient and his lover part for the last time:
From this point in our lives, she had whispered to him earlier, we will either find or lose our souls.
How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled.
I was in her arms. I had pushed the sleeve of her shirt up to the shoulder so I could see her vaccination scar. I love this, I said. This pale aureole on her arm. I see the instrument scratch and then punch the serum within her and then release itself, free of her skin, years ago, when she was nine years old, in a school gymnasium. 
I love everything about this. The tiny moments of intimacy, the last sentence tripping through fragments and time. There are hundreds of flashes like this throughout the novel, and each time I read it I find a new one.

One of the relationships that really struck me this time through was Hana's and her father's. He appears only in bits and pieces, but Ondaatje gives their bond the same love and attention he gives the romantic relationships. This one cracked me up:
In Canada pianos needed water. You opened up the back and left a full glass of water, and a month later the glass would be empty. Her father had told her about the dwarfs who drank only at pianos, never in bars. She had never believed that but had at first thought it was perhaps mice. 

And this one:
A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She had read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father--whenever she collected the moments of him--stopping his car under one specific bridge in Toronto north of Pottery Road at midnight and telling her that this was where the starlings and pigeons uncomfortably and not too happily shared the rafters during the night. So they had paused there on a summer night and leaned their heads out into the racket of noise and sleepy chirpings.
Ondaatje's handles memory skillfully--over half of the book is made up of flashbacks or people's own accounts of their pasts. The details are smaller, more fleeting than those in the present tense, but they're that much mroe evocative.

One of the joys of this blog has been discovering new books; it has reminded me of the thousands of books out there for me to fall in love with. I almost felt guilty reading this over with so many others on my list this summer, but it was fully worth it. It reminded me why I love writing and words and sentences, and of the power of the tiny moment.

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