Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 18, 2009

The English Patient

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.



  1. I’m so glad you posted this. If you can believe it, I’ve never seen the film or read the book — but now I want to.

  2. I love both the book and the movie, so am glad you’re enjoying it. The book does focus on all four characters equally, while the movie leaves out most of Hana and Kip’s stories. You might also like In the skin of a lion, which focuses on Caravaggio and Hana and their families in Canada.

  3. Yep, you’re right–everything is connected. If Britain falls, then other countries can’t be too far behind. I’m going to have to try the novel–you’ve changed my mind about reading it!

  4. Though I’ve read the book and seen the movie, I really enjoyed this review. And it reminded me that I really did enjoy it, too, although the film seems to take a lot of pooh-poohing here in the States.

  5. I like your connections here – and I think the media’s reporting on the economy could be a bit more nuanced. And thanks for nudging me to read the book. I loved the film (and Juliette Binoche as Hana if I remember correctly) and am a fan of Ondaatje so will have to put it on the TBR list.

  6. This is one of the most beautifully written books about war. The film, as you said, focuses on the English patient and thus seemed very unfamiliar to me. I enjoy the book more, love the intricately written narratives about the parties concerned.

  7. Lisa: do both: watch the film and read the book – they’re both worth it, in their own (different) ways!
    A devoted reader: it’s on my list, ready for ordering once I get back home for a couple of days in a row (so that the postman does not have to take the parcel back with him!)
    chartroose – good idea!
    Oh: I loved the film, hence seeing it twice!
    Pete: yes, go and read the book – it’s quite different and gave me a lovely surprise
    Matthew: I saw the film before reading the book, so the surprise was the other way round. My first love was the film though, now I also love the book!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: