‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje is a historical fiction novel published in the year 1992, and won the Booker Prize, and the critics applauded the novel’s thematic depth, poetic density, lyrical prose, melancholic setting, and powerful narrative. Further, it was made into an Oscar winning film in 1996.
I hadn’t included ‘The English Patient’ to my reading list till last month, when I attended the exclusive event of The Golden Man Booker, where they crowned the English Patient amongst other novels of the likes of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, honestly I was a bit shocked by the absence of one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
After that news, as a result, I decided to read the novel and judge for myself, and find the answer to questions like: Does The English Patient deserve to hold the crown and win over my favourite novels of all time, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro? Many great novels haven’t won the Booker Prize, for example, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, A Bend in The River & A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul, does The English Patient deserve to be recognised as the best novel of English Literature in the last 50 Golden years?
The moment I finished the first few chapters, I realised that Ondaatje has nailed the prose. It was evidently clear that Michael, strained his nerves and puffed his eyes while writing the sentences of this beautifully described novel, lyrical, poignant, creative, liminal, and transgressive.
The novel is also more about the buried anguish and the suppressed voice of history that lies beneath the facade of richness of landscape, the novel is set during the Italian campaign of the second World War and follows the lives of four characters – Kip, Hanna, David Caravaggio, and the unnamed enigmatic English Patient in an Italian Villa.
Michael Ondaatje has meticulously crafted a philosophically engaging novel that deals with the eternal vastness of being nowhere, to belong to no one, and to be owned by none another than oneself. Supposedly, the idea is materialised in the way of setting, the desert and the bleakness of the broken down Italian countryside during the war, all the characters live under extreme loneliness and isolation in themselves, and under the shed of each other’s support who belong to nowhere, no one and probably not even to themselves.
In a way, The English Patient is a progressive novel that aims to break stereotypes. For example, the characters span the globe, the difference of cultured, religion, political friendship and loyalty, and are brought together through humaneness in themselves. Kirpal Singh is an Indian Sikh who has volunteered with the British Military as a dapper; Hana is a twenty year old Canadian Army Nurse; David Caravaggio is a Canadian Thief; and the unnamed English Patient is a man whose identity is enigmatic, someone who has travelled the world, and belongs to the religion of the unknown and the uncanny.
The emotional core of the novel lies at the heart of the character’s desperation and struggle to survive, is the eternal damnation that has come to them, the feeling of clinging to something and just existing in the vast universe, waiting to die and vanish into bleakness.
The dialogues are simple, sparsely spoken, and striking with lucidity. The characters are authentic and the prose is sublime. The novel is a poetic and philosophical testimony to the remnants of buried history.
The English Patient is a masterful novel without a doubt.
But again, the answer to my question was this, I still feel after reading the novel that The Golden Man Booker was awarded to a great book but not the best, I would say my nomination for the Golden Man Booker would have been:
- The Remains of The Day by Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, also rated by Evening Standard as the best novel to have been awarded the Booker Prize, even ahead of The English Patient.
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a masterpiece and one of my favourite novels of all time. I seriously feel that this is a legendary novel and one of the top 50 novels of all time.
- The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst is a grand novel, with a masterful prose, which I feel is better than the English Patient, in its execution and character development and it has a rare poetic beauty and philosophical charm. A rich novel in all senses.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is an masterpiece rooted in India, brilliantly imagined and portrayed colourfully, which goes deeper into the political and personal geographies of the mind and territory. It also won the best of the Booker prize twice.
- The English Patient – 4.5/5