Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars
1992 Man Booker Prize
February’s Holy Grail was a good romance that I couldn’t scoff at. Mission accomplished. There’s very little of the ridiculous in Ondaatje’s intense and haunting novel of doomed passion.
At the tail end of the Second World War, a young nurse, Hana, and her sole patient are locked away from the rest of the world in a crumbling monastery in the hills north of Florence in Italy. Not only is the Villa San Girolamo in ruins, its previous German occupants have booby-trapped it to blow sky-high with one unsuspecting act. But Hana’s patient cannot be moved, and Hana refuses to leave him. Into their lives wander two other men: David Caravaggio, a friend from Hana’s past, and Kirpal Singh – Kip – a young Sikh soldier with the British army. The power of this book lies in the lyrical beauty of its language, and the fleshing out of these four wounded souls against the backdrop of a brutal and dehumanizing war.
The story does not proceed in any linear fashion, and the reader is caught in the undertow of the protagonists' flickering memories and emotions. Each has their story to tell. Hana, the youngest of the four has seen the specter of death too often in her brief career tending to the wounded and the dying. Caravaggio, a charismatic thief, has been compelled during the course of the war into playing a far more shadowy and dangerous role, and has paid dearly for it. Kip, the sapper, has an instinct for finding and defusing bombs and mines. But his work has him living life on the edge, alert for danger from any direction and keeping the world at a distance, finding safety only in himself.
The most intriguing is the man known as the English Patient, to whom Hana devotes all her care. Dying and in an agony that can be palliated only with morphine, he still seems intensely alive, a compendium of erudition, who bears his pain with dignity, with patience. Nobody knows if he is even English, only that he might be, but then, he might be so many things. He is a man who owes his allegiance only to the undulating sands of the desert:
“The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith… Fire and sand. We left the harbours of oasis. The places water came to and touched…Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.”
He has been severely burned in an airplane accident in the deserts of Africa, and has barely made it alive to the hospitals of Italy. The army, ever on the look-out for enemy spies, grills him without much success. He gives no satisfactory answer to their questions, but slowly reveals his secrets to his companions at the villa. The secrets of his life, and of the forbidden passion for a woman that has destroyed them both. The sensuous language of this book encompasses both the anatomy of desire and the landscape of longing. Love must lie somewhere between the two.
The 1996 movie, ‘The English Patient’ was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, and won nine, including Best Picture. Good as this book was, I confess that I found the film version far more moving. There are some things that are better portrayed than written about.