Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje; drawing by David Levine

“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 by German troops, and more recently it was a field hospital for the Allies. It has been bombed, and the whole area around it has been mined by the retreating Germans. The villa’s walls are shaky, but strong enough to bear the weight of symbolism Ondaatje will place upon them. They are painted with scenes from nature, garden vistas; the ceilings are painted like the sky. There are rooms full of rubble that one cannot enter.

The inhabitants of the villa are Hana, a Canadian nurse, and the English patient himself. Hana has refused to move on with the other nurses and troops; the excuse she makes is that the English patient is too sick to move. She has lost her father, her lover, and her unborn child, all of them casualties of the war. She is perhaps half mad. She does not look in mirrors; she wears a pair of tennis shoes taken from a dead man’s pack. By day she works in the devastated garden and orchard, providing what food she can; she tends her patient, priming him with morphine. She reads to him, and like Ondaatje gives “no summary of the missing chapters.” At night she creeps through the villa’s dangerous rooms, sleeping always in a different place, a nomad who rolls up her bed each morning.

The English patient never moves and does not know his name. He is a saint perhaps, Hana thinks; she loves him, loves his husk which can contain anything or nothing, loves his skinless body. Flying across the North African desert, he crashed from the sky. He came from the wreckage of his plane with his head on fire. The Bedouin saved him, and delivered him in time back to civilization, his skin changed to the color of aubergine.

These two are suspended in time and place, the roll of Tuscan thunder replacing the rattle of guns. To the villa comes Caravaggio, with bandaged hands; his trade as thief has slid naturally into that of spy, but he has been captured, tortured, his thumbs cut off. The next to arrive is Kirpal Singh, a Sikh, an army sapper, known as Kip. He billets himself at the villa, while with his comrades he begins the fantastically dangerous work of mine detection. Kip is trained to see danger everywhere, in nature and in art:


Bombs were attached to taps, to the spines of books, they were drilled into fruit trees so an apple falling onto a lower branch would detonate the tree, just as a hand gripping that branch would. He was unable to look at a room or field without seeing the possibilities of weapons there.

Of these characters, Hana and Caravaggio are underrealized, the sapper is idealized. They are wraiths, freighted with abstraction, weighted with portent. Perhaps this is not a fault; after all, Ondaatje operates through image, one image detonating the next, metaphor tripping metaphor. There is texture, slippery texture, as well as movement: silk and water and sand feature in his favored conceits, and the images slip and slide and coalesce, not just page to page but book to book. Caravaggio’s bloodied hands, slipping thumbless from his handcuffs, recall the ankle bones of Billy the Kid, slender and rattling in death, rattling within the chain: both these extremities unnaturally slimmed. It is better not to think of looking for a story, or you will become exasperated. Better to think not of a story, but of figures, images, of the still dark pool that the English patient represents to Hana.

All his writing shows how Ondaatje distrusts the public version of the world, the masculine certainties and received histories within which most of us—even if female—dwell. He has an intense desire, as a writer, to erase these certainties, to take nothing on trust, to write as if words were new, new coinages for new thoughts. This is what he says in In the Skin of a Lion:

Official histories, news stories surround us daily, but the events of art reach us too late, travel languorously like messages in a bottle.

That sums up his thinking, and incidentally illustrates how Ondaatje’s images don’t always come off: Who would associate languor with that wave-battered frail container?

In an enviable way, Ondaatje the writer slides away from appraisal. In the first place, his work encourages reverence that perhaps it has not earned. It’s often this way when poets turn to prose; the critics begin to genuflect before the ink is dry on the publisher’s catalog. It is as if the poets were condescending: If they bestow on prose supreme style, can we expect much in the way of content? It may be that critics are unduly impressed because they fear a lack in themselves; they reach for the word “beauty,” and feel it beyond their grasp. They can do academics’ prose, or journalists’ prose, but they’re afraid they can’t do this mysterious thing, poet’s prose. But of course, there are poets whose novels teem with narrative invention: for a very modern instance, think of Ulverton, Adam Thorpe’s glowing, intricate picture of four centuries of English rural life.* There are novelists who do not describe themselves as poets, but who deploy their images and balance their sentences and paragraphs with great skill and care. So—perhaps Ondaatje is poised to get away with a lot?

There is another problem—a reason why he is going to go on getting away with it. Simply to describe this book is to lend it a second-hand cohesion. You have to tell the plot; the mere methodology of criticism imposes the organization that Ondaatje does not impose for himself. To recount it—as one must to talk about it at all—is to falsify it.

There is no solution to this problem. You are left with “beauty” to examine, if you dare. It is not too daring to suggest that there are different kinds of beauty in prose. There is the jewel; Ondaatje plays the fountain. There is the polished; he elects the limpid. There is the highly wrought; he hasn’t wrought at all. He is ever your man of water, thought flowing and trickling within a permeable, flexible skin of syntax. His sentences flow over the reader. Sometimes you have to read them twice. This is not always because they are beautiful. Sometimes it is because you do not know what they mean.

Back at the villa, the sapper eyes Hana:

If he could walk across the room and touch her he would be sane. But between them lay a treacherous and complex journey. It was a very wide world. And the Englishman woke at any sound…

The patient doesn’t just listen, he also talks. Though he does not know who he is, he is possessed of a rich and particular history, which in its fullest form will be extracted by Caravaggio the thief, when he has added alcohol to morphine.


There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk.

Again, the author is explaining his own method; he is anxious that we do not miss these markers. Slipping from level to level, layering meaning; this is one of the novelist’s tasks. How to do it? Ondaatje does it by repetition, and by minute variation on a theme, as if his novel were music. Another way to do it is by irony. Ondaatje builds in certain colossal, crushing ironies, which pay off late. “The successful defusing of a bomb ended novels,” Ondaatje writes. He is signaling frantically, here, from poet in the water to reader on the land. Kip spends most of his time making small bombs safe, yet the book will end with Hiroshima.

Smaller ironies—the ones which, sliced fine, we call wit—are not on display. Perhaps wit is the English disease. Ondaatje will do nothing that might undermine his own case. This is a book of great solemnity, of hightoned expensive melancholy: filled with consciousness of risk, resisting commitment, overwhelmed and finally smothered by ambiguity. We spend too long in the villa, sharing Hana’s freaky nights and Caravaggio’s gloomy vigil. Who is the English patient? Caravaggio wants to give him an identity, a fresh skin.

Just before the halfway mark, the scene shifts. The reader is glad of the change. We have been drowning in delicacy, and still look—though with increasing despair—for the strong hand of narrative that will pull us out. We know we are headed for the desert, for North Africa, but we go by way of London. Ondaatje pictures for us the members of the Geographical Society, dessicated travelers wending to Kensington to read their papers, to add their grain of knowledge to the history of desert exploration. He brings them in from the suburbs, these burned-out men, their careful tentative sentences prepared on paper; claiming little, questioning everything. These precise and sympathetic pages yield up a simple pleasure. For once, the writer settles; he is not glancing over his shoulder or peering into the corners of the room. The members of the society ask themselves:

“Are the artesian water supplies of the oases gradually diminishing? Where shall we look for the mysterious ‘Zerzura’?…Where are the tortoise marshes of Ptolemy?”

We learn that

“By the mid-1930s the lost oasis of Zerzura was found by Ladislaus de Almásy and his companions.”

But by 1939 the exploration of the desert is replaced by the desert war.

Almásy, it will be discovered, is the “English patient”; not English at all, but then he has always had, he claims, a certain quality of anonymity about him. The desert enhances this quality:

“We were German, English, Hungarian, African…. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states…. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand…. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.”

It is Caravaggio who is able to identify the English patient as a Hungarian count, an explorer and cartographer who helped the German army understand the desert. We hear from the patient himself about the background to his collaboration. Before the war, his group of desert explorers had been joined by Geoffrey Clifton, a quixotic young Englishman with a private plane. He had his bride, Katharine, on board. Almásy started an affair with her. It ended; but in the last days before the war, Clifton, having agreed to collect Almásy at a desert camp, flew his plane at him, bent on suicide or murder or both. Clifton was killed. Katharine was injured. Almásy left her in a cave, and went for help. At the nearest settlement he found himself in the hands of the British authorities, who did not believe the story of the dying woman in the cave. He was imprisoned as a spy. By the time he was free to return she was long dead. He took her body out of the cave, out of the desert, flying: the plane caught fire, the corpse was burned, Almásy barely survived; he lost his skin, lost his nation, as thoroughly as anyone could wish.

A lot of plot here, suddenly? Yes: more than the structure can bear. Clifton turns out to be not just a quixotic young Englishman, but a British intelligence agent; this will not surprise readers. About page 255, a whiff of panic infects the novel; there is a flurry of explanations, necessary so that further puzzles can be set. It is as if there were a story Ondaatje meant to tell, but it slipped his mind. He has focused on the villa and its nonevents, but the interest of the story lies elsewhere; the real story was over long before his version begins.

Any working writer will know how easy it is to misplace the focus of a novel, to go off-center. You see one shape; the reader sees another. To create a still center, to let narrative ripple around it: this is a useful, graceful technique. Strangely, it is here that grace fails; Ondaatje’s narrative becomes uneven, unresolved, unsatisfactory. It is as if parts of the story have fallen through a hole in the world: as if the power that should properly belong to the novel has drained away, as if a torrent has become a trickle. Let us vary the image—Ondaatje wouldn’t think twice—and say that what frustrates the reader is this: a great novel, one of the greatest of an age, curls here in watery slumber, sucking a fetal thumb.

Among the off-center narratives, much the most interesting concerns the sapper’s career. With dexterity, Ondaatje sketches Kip’s earlier life in India. He comes of a family who have expectations for their sons. The first will go into the army; the second will be a doctor, the third a businessman. Kip’s elder brother is anti-British, and during the war he is in jail. Kip assumes the responsibilities both of fighting and of healing: of making safe. Still, there may be a tendency to overestimate what is done in this strand of the story. Kip learns to dismantle bombs; these pages are tense, easy to read, and easy to read fast. But again, we must consider the critics’ foible; they over-praise any upmarket writer who smoothly performs the recognized tricks of the genre hack. Think of Ian McEwan’s novel The Innocent; what caught the critics’ fancy was a scene where a corpse is dismembered. Such pages are worth the candle, but maybe not worth the song; worth the nod, but not the orchestra of praise.

Meanwhile, back at the villa…. “She turns away from him, her arms folded. The feuds of the world. The feuds of the world.”

This is Hana, turning away from Kip. He is explaining his brother’s politics, and his own thoughts. Japan is part of Asia. Sikhs have been brutalized by Japanese. Yet, the British are hanging Sikhs who are fighting for their independent state.

What to do? What the hell!

“At night when she lets his hair free, he is once more another constellation, the arms of a thousand equators against his pillow, waves of it between them in their embrace and in their turns of sleep.”

Are we asked to set aside division: of cause from cause, self from self? The final chapter contains, as I have said, the Hiroshima bomb. Kip hears the news, and erupts into the room of the “English patient”:

My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said.

Kip trains his rifle on the “English patient” and is reminded that no one quite knows who the man is.

“American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman.”

It is a crude polemic, this, exploding into the final pages of the book. As Ondaatje has neglected or disdained or is disinclined to set up a mechanism to distinguish his views from those of his characters, we wonder whether he is speaking for himself. It is fashionable to pretend not to know why certain wars were fought: Does this incomprehension now stretch to World War II? Is there no truth that jumps out of its skin—white, brown, burnt—to embrace the postwar generation? Hana writes home to Canada:

It feels like the end of the world. From now on I believe the personal will forever be at war with the public.

As to the author’s position, perhaps we are informed by Patrick’s words, from In the Skin of a Lion:

I don’t believe the language of politics, but I’ll protect the friends I have. It’s all I can handle.

Sometimes it is possible to say what a writer is trying to do and say whether he has done it. There can be no such definitive opinion on this book. Some wish to give it big prizes. Some may find it makes them feel queasy. Leave aside the images, whether they succeed or not; address only this point, that the feuds of the world are not all the same. There is an artist’s sentimentality which encourages evil by seeking to disengage. Ondaatje wins all (well, some) admiration as he slips from the grasp of literary criticism. He wins none (at least from me) when he sneaks from responsibility—as a storyteller, as a thinker, one who cleaves always to what is private, hidden, ambiguous; who slips away from statement. This is a hard thing to say, because in Ondaatje’s books there is the powerful pulse of human sympathy, a pull toward benevolence. Pulse, pull—it’s not enough. Sometimes ambivalence is immoral. When souls burn, the quietist stinks with the rest.

This Issue

January 14, 1993