Comments on The English Patient by Ondaatje

I read The English Patient for two reasons. The main one, I admit, is that one of my students selected this 1992 Governor General’s Award and Booker Prize winner as the novel she’d do for a reading/discussion assignment I’d given for our Canadian Literature class in the library diploma program at Credenda Virtual College.

The second reason was that I knew it was about a Hungarian during World War II, although I knew little else about the novel. That intrigued me as I’m Hungarian and researching an historical novel set in Hungary, so have done a lot of reading about many different aspects of the country’s history.

I downloaded The English Patient from the Kobo store. It was well formatted, although I often had half empty screens due to additional spaces between sections, so I had to scroll more than was maybe necessary in many places.

Then, I read the book.

The English Patient is about four characters of different ages, countries, and ethnic ancestries. Hana, the only woman, is a young Canadian nurse who has taken on the formidable task of caring for a badly burned man, known only as the English patient. The other two characters included an older man, Caravaggio, who had known Hana and her father for years, and Kip, a young Indian (from India) sapper.

I found this character, Kip, the most interesting person in the story, perhaps because I had no idea what a sapper was–or perhaps because of the way he challenged danger every minute of every day. At any rate, a sapper, I discovered, was a combat engineer performing technical duties, which in Kip’s case were disarming bombs of every make and variety. The descriptions of his wartime activities and growth of his career truly drew me in and brought me a different perspective of war that will be very useful for the Hungarian novel I’m working on.

And what about the Hungarian? Well, as it turned out, the English patient was really the Hungarian, so any insights into what it was to be Hungarian during World War II were hidden in the psyche of the burnt man, who’d long-since buried his true identify of Count Ladislaus de Almásy.

Almásy and Kip, though, through their inner thoughts did present an interesting study of nationality, particularly during wartime, which I found useful as a writer and thought-provoking as a reader.

The story’s setting, the abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy, was a place that became almost a character in itself, a common theme in much Canadian literature. However, it was the desert scenes revealed through Almásy’s memories that kept me riveted. While I’ve always thought of the desert (I’ve visited Saskatchewan’s Great Sand Hills) as being something relatively familiar and related to winter’s blowing snow, Ondaatje’s descriptions were so concise I could actually feel and taste and touch the different environment as I read.

And at the end? Well, after reading The English Patient, I felt richer in my understanding of wartime and how individuals deal with its situations, both collectively and on their own.

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