Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient

He came from the desert, brought by the Bedouins who massaged his burned flesh with ointments and lotions. He has no identity, no memories of life before the fire that engulfed him and is known simply as Englishman, because of his voice. Now he lies in an abandoned Italian villa which served as an Allied field hospital and while he hears the parts of Herodotus “The Histories”, he recollects the parts of his memory and tells a tale of his own, wrapped in a veil of mystery, through the morphine haze and the other man pieces together a puzzle of his identity.

Villa is a home to Hana, also. A nurse in loved with ghosts, girl laded with burden of those she has lost so she tries to save the Englishman, even though it’s futile. To him, each day is an extension of agony. There’s a Caravaggio, an old thief and a spy for British Intelligence, who lost his thumbs after Nazis caught him. Now he’s just a shadow of his former self, an addict on morphine. Kip is British sapper, who is, despite his skill and merits, not welcomed among his comrades for one reason only. He’s a Sikh.

So the villa becomes a place where a carefully crafted psychological study of four damaged characters, in body and mind, starts to unfold as they battle their inner demons. Through the Englishman’s story about a passionate affair with Katharine, a friend’s wife, whom he was mesmerized as she read the passages from Herodotus “The Histories”, just like Hana, they start a séance and gathering of the pieces of their beings in order to find peace. As much is this is the story of Englishman and his lover, it’s also a story about Hana and Kip, almost identical characters of tragic fate. Ondaatje didn’t write just a novel, but rhapsody of sorrow, love, loss and departure, about identity and fears, the borders which are holding us back and freedoms for which we longing for.

Masterfully assembled sentences Ondaatje writes bear the symbols and metaphor, and he excels in it. He’s giving us the fragments we piece together; about characters and theirs past, places they visited, things that happened. Inner conflicts of theirs are hidden behind their actions and words, with no inner voice of their own. Ondaatje plays with words, like a child in sand, building the magnificent creation and in the way of doing it, sometimes gets carried away but it doesn’t matter for he is a maestro, and to them it is forgiven.

„The English Patient“ is not the usual novel which follows established patterns and rules, he reinvents the literature. Of his quality clearly speaks the Man Booker Award from 1992, successful movie adaption by Anthony Minghella in 1996 and the fact it was chosen among 51 novels which have been Man Booker recipients over the years as the best one. Considering that the roster had names such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, William Golding and many others, it is a great success. Fragmentation of the story, shifting the narrative from third to first person and vice versa, sensibility, word games and lyricism which Ondaatje uses to write with such and ease are perhaps the things which will not attract a large number of people, but those are the things which gives this novel its charm and for what it’s unique, and that’s what makes Ondaatje inviolable while transferring us to a world a far, Libyan desert and ruined Italian villa, to the nights filled with passion used to seek the salvation of the soul in the connection of two bodies.


  • Translator: Dijana Radinović
  • Pages: 312
  • Publisher: Laguna
  • Date of publishing: 2018.


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