Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

“I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The English Patient offers some of the most sensual language I have ever read. The characters in the book are all in some way bounded within broken bodies or minds; the common place they share- filled with sounds, scents, particular tactile surfaces- is where the characters and the reader meet to know themselves. The book has lots to consider around issues of identity, relationship with history, narrative construction and how our stories tell us- this will invigorate our discussion. This work has much to do with living in the experience of the body – and all the characters are defined by their bodies’ possibilities or limits – which gestures towards post-colonial aesthetics (offering endless possibilities for discussion) with beautiful writing and fine sensory detail. I think we will discover a text that can be lived in and felt: this is that start of our conversation between the body and the mind. There is also much here about national identities, how we may use art to overcome the tragedy of being human, the small acts of generosity set against the horror of war, the rejuvenation of love…

“The role of a camera is to capture the light and movement of a moment onto film; the role of an author is to capture the immensity of life\’s moments onto text. Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje attempts such mystical conjuration in both his prose and poetic prints, while still remaining true to the rhythms of the geographic peoples he mimics in his narratives.”

–from a review of Ondaatje on The Modern Word by Anthony N. Chandler


  • Four week study
  • Recommended edition: The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje; Bloomsbury Paperbacks (21 Sept. 2017); ISBN-10: 9781408891346

Selections from Toby’s article in the Camden New Journal on Michael Ondaatje winning the Golden Man Booker Prize July 2018

“The crown ultimately (o dear, a royal metaphor—probably not quite apropos) went to Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient. I am not a huge believer in top of the list titles—I think any of the books in this short-list worthy of celebration and appreciation of the craftmanship—and what do we mean this book is The Best? Any significant book in any moment will reach into the reader in a particular way—even the same reader will hold a book in a different place depending on a halo of (known and buried) impulses of their life in that time.

The judge who chose The English Patient and advocated for it is Kamila Shamsie. She says this in her statement:

The English Patient is that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight. It moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate – one moment you’re in looking at the vast sweep of the desert and the next moment watching a nurse place a piece of plum in a patient’s mouth. That movement is mirrored in the way your thoughts, while reading it, move between large themes – war, loyalty, love – to tiny shifts in the relationships between characters. It’s intricately (and rewardingly) structured, beautifully written, with great humanity written into every page. Ondaatje’s imagination acknowledges no borders as it moves between Cairo, Italy, India, England, Canada – and between deserts and villas and bomb craters. And through all this, he makes you fall in love with his characters, live their joys and their sorrows. Few novels really deserve the praise: transformative. This one does.”

I have led a few studies on this work—exploring its post-colonial perspective (might we read the burnt body of the English patient as the symbolic shell of the colonial structure?), the use of the body as a site of resistance and record, the relation between the self and history in the twilight of war—but what concentrates my mind is Ondaatje’s diamond-sharp prose. The language reflects the time of the book: in this community of broken people on the edge of the war, sheer beauty is in small spaces in this ruined villa—in the compassion and care each shows the others. Identity, nationalism, prejudice are met and broken against the wounds of love each carries.


Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a cloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky. 

She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters. 

What? She asks, coming out of her concentration. 

He turns his dark face with its grey eyes towards her. She pushes her hands into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died. 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje pgs 3-4

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Posted on

May 13, 2018