A story about the desert

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this since I got to, like, page 10. There is a lot going on in this book, and many different facets to explore. To make it even better, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed movie and I love adaptations!

Here’s my review of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.

The story starts with a French-Canadian nurse called Hana, who is living (almost) alone in an abandoned Italian villa. World War II is raging on, but Hana has decided to separate from her army division to care for a mysterious stranger who was severely burned after being shot down over enemy lines. Not much is known about him (apart from the fact that he is basically a human kabab) but based on his accent, he is dubbed the English Patient. Over time, two more housemates are added: Caravaggio, Hana’s old family friend from Canada, and Kip, an Indian sapper working for the British. As the story unfolds, details about the ‘backstories’ of each of the characters are revealed- each has their own motivations for joining the war. The story ends once The English Patient tells them his true identity, and in the background, the war ends.

I liked this story because it shows the impacts of war at an individual level. None of the characters are traditional soldiers, and they all join the war efforts for different reasons (all unrelated to ‘patriotism’ or bravery). I mean, why would a Canadian man with an Italian name volunteer himself as a spy? The end of the war is also quite anti-climactic. Since none of the characters were motivated by feels of nationalism, the results mean nothing to them- they must live their whole lives with the burden of what (or who?) they have lost. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ve appended some more analysis down below with a spoiler warning.

About the book-to-movie adaptation:

The story was very much Hollywood-ized. The story that was previously about the losses and betrayals of war was morphed into a romance of Titanic proportions (pun intended)

However, the imagery of the book is painstakingly retained. Ondaatje describes Katharine’s hair as being like a lion’s mane when the Cliftons first arrive in the desert, and Almasy refers to himself as long-browed. Both are noticeable in the movie, and are good examples of how the director cut no corners in recreating the book. Hana is charming and beautiful and Caravaggio looks the part… the disappointment was Kip. They have stripped away his backstory and motivations and character development, and he’s reduced to a shirtless, long-haired love interest for Hana. I’ll admit that his story in particular would have been difficult to translate to screen- especially the intense sapper training, but it was still a loss.

The movie won a boatload of Oscars, possibly because the themes are prime award-fodder, but it is really a very good movie.

Unsurprisingly, the author himself is very much a citizen of the world- he’s a Sri Lankan-born Canadian, and his name suggests European heritage.

This book gets a 5/5 from me. You’ll enjoy it if you like melodramatic and pretentious stories that are well written.

–HERE BE SPOILERS–

I wanted to kind of summarize why each character joined the war, and what they lost in the process.

  • Hana: It’s not very clear at first, mostly because Hana is very clearly painted as an innocent, young girl (remember the hopscotch scene?). It’s only later that we learn, from Caravaggio, about her tragedy. Her father died in the war, and was probably severely burned. Hana’s love for the English Patient mirrored the affection and care she wished she could have shown to her father during the end of his life. She loses her father and her fiance to the war, and perhaps never fully recovers (implied by Kip’s “happy ending”- Hana does not get one of her own)
  • Kip: He comes for the adventure and stays out of loyalty to the Englishman and woman who teach him about bombs. Kip loses Hana, and his faith- he becomes very disillusioned with the Western world after the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing. He goes back to India and becomes a doctor, as per his parents’ wishes.
  • Caravaggio: He is trying to escape from something, perhaps ramifications from his dishonest lifestyle in Canada? Oddly, he finds his place as a spy through similarly dishonest means- he leverages his Italian sounding surname and his talent for thievery. He loses his thumbs, in a particularly poetic form of justice.
  • Count Almasy: He joins the war to, maybe, find Katharine again (though I don’t think he could reasonably have expected to find her alive). He finds her, and loses his own life.
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