Last month, I watched “The English Patient” on HBO for the first time. I remember trying to watch it years ago and thinking it was boring; I was a teenager of course and not mature enough for the “high-brow” storytelling style. This time around I had the opposite reaction from years ago, and I admit that I haven’t been so moved by a story in a long time. The movie led me to Michael Ondaatje’s book on which the movie is based.
For an epic love story set against a World War II backdrop, it’s a fast read (only 320 pages). Unlike the movie, the book does not exactly center around Almasy and Katherine’s ill fated love, but rather is bookended by Kip and Hana. Their love is also an impossible one but not for reasons of infidelity. It is because of race, Kip being Sri Lankan, Hana being Canadian, that their love could never move beyond the Italian villa.
It may not come as a shock then, to learn that Michael Ondaatje is Canadian of Sri Lankan decent. The characters represent (I suspect) the parts of himself that struggle with ethnic and cultural identity. He uses the situation his characters face (such as Kip and Hana falling in love) as vehicles to confront the bold racism that exists between East and West.
The world Ondaatje builds is also fascinating. With Kips as military sapper (i.e. bomb tech), Ondaatje immerses the reader in what was the colossal task of disabling the hundreds of thousands of bombs left throughout the country at the conclusion of the war. He also takes the reader to the frontiers of the Sahara Desert into the Gilf Kebir Cave of Swimmers, and other remote locations in the 1930s world of map making.
For anyone wanting a different perspective on the well worn path of World War II historical drama, read– and watch, “The English Patient”. Its characters, and Michael Ondaatje’s literary magic, will not disappoint.