Wraith’s Progress

The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 307 pp., $21.00

The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town.”

This is Michael Ondaatje, adverting to his own craft in his novel In the Skin of a Lion. His new novel, The English Patient, is a joint winner of this year’s Booker Prize; it meanders in a determined way, swerving gently but effectively away from those false certainties that the author so despises. If the reader treads water and thrashes around—well, Ondaatje would not consider himself responsible for that.

Michael Ondaatje is the author of several collections of poetry, and of a number of books which mix poetry and prose: they are elusive, fluid, and quirky books, originals. He lives in Canada, but he was born in Sri Lanka in 1943. Running in the Family (1982) is the story of his return to his homeland at the age of thirty-six, of his retrieval of his family story through the family memory. Languid, exquisite, gently humorous, it seems to suggest that memory is not an individual possession, and that events do not exist in themselves, only as the sum of stories; it is a suggestion reinforced in The English Patient.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is a collage—stories, poems, photographs. It explores a myth, leaves it not dissected but embellished, Billy dead and “his legend a jungle sleep.” Coming through Slaughter (1976) employs the same technique, but here the setting is New Orleans at the turn of the century, and the subject is Buddy Bolden, barber turned jazzman. In the Skin of a Lion (1987) is more conventional as a novel, but still dreamlike, lyrical, and episodic.

Its central character is Patrick Lewis. To call him that is perhaps to misdescribe Ondaatje’s method—but the describer must start somewhere. Patrick comes from the country to Toronto in the early 1920s and helps to build the city, toiling on the bridges and tunnels, feeling his way in and out of identity, his story merging with that of others—a child called Hana, and David Caravaggio, who is an Italian-American thief.

These two will return in The English Patient. There will be allusions to other characters in the earlier book, vague and unexplained references which baffle the reader who has not prepared himself by reading in the right order. It must be that Ondaatje sees his oeuvre as self-validating, growing apace, cut free from the fettering expectations of consumers. He is no journeyman, you see; he is an artist. That must be his thinking. Otherwise there would have been a case for doing the hard work to connect the books, doing that fiddly technical stuff that some writers think is their job.

The setting of The English Patient is the Villa San Girolamo, twenty miles from Florence; we are in the closing days of World War II. Once a nunnery, the villa had been occupied …

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