One of the Economist’s headlines is ‘Britain’s fallen star’, noting that the news goes from bad to ghastly (The Economist, February 14th 2009, p.35). The article in point questions Britain’s status as Europe’s new sick man, however, in the race to the bottom, Britain is neck and neck with Germany, and its ‘swing from paragon to pariah has gone too far’.
It seems the right time to be reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. His English patient is not really English; he is a Hungarian count, unrecognisable due to the horrific burns suffered when his plane came down in the Libyan desert in the Second World War. Bedouins looked after him and treated his burnt body in a way no one else would know how to. The patient ends up in a hospital in Italy, unidentified by the allies at the end of the war, and referred to as the English patient. He speaks English fluently and claims he does not remember who he is. When the hospital is evacuated, the patient stays behind, too ill to be moved, looked after by Hana, a 20-year old Canadian nurse, in her own way traumatised by the war.
This story is not really about the English patient, at least not all of it; rather it is about all of the inhabitants of this ruin of a house in Italy. The story is about Hana, damaged by the war and desperate about her father’s death, the way he died; it’s about Caravaggio, a former friend of Hana’s father and a professional thief who has used his skills in helping to steal documents from the enemy; and then there’s Kip (Kirpal Singh), a Sikh, trained in England as a bomb disposal expert. And of course, there’s the English patient, the Hungarian count. Is he a traitor or is all that beyond concern? Their stories relate and intermingle and form the background, explain why they are there and how they come to leave the place again.
It’s a beautifully crafted story and until now I had only seen the film (twice). In fact, the book and the film have quite a different emphasis. Whereas the film focuses on the story of the English patient, the book is about all four of them, it’s about the story of why they are there and who they are. Their stories are set off against the background of living in this ruin of a villa in Italy at the end of the Second World War.
So how does this connect with current day England as a patient? Just as today’s credit crunch and recession is not just about England as the main patient, neither is Ondaatje’s story simply about one man. There are always the others to consider, sometimes they’re just as interesting or even more interesting. The one does not live in isolation of the other.