Even though it was years and years ago that I saw it, I wish I'd read the book before seeing the movie made of The English Patient. It would likely have meant that I'd have despised the movie, but having seen it kept me putting my attention in certain places, and never seeing other aspects creeping up until it was too late.
The movie, of course,
is a romance. The book, although it has romances in it, is not. It is
about war, and its effects on people. How some are destroyed, and some
think they have found themselves.
The irony of the title is not
just that eponymous character may not be English, but that no one in the
book is. Hana and Caravaggio come from Canada, (Caravaggio probably
from somewhere else before that), Kip from India. Yet they are all in
France at that certain time, having participated in the war effort for
the English, as a nurse, a thief, a mine clearer. Englishness itself
lingers over the scene of the book, but no one hails from the country
for which they are in the war - they are all from the colonies.
is not well-defined - the sections on Kip are the most direct, but even
in that case, it is a particular Englishman and his entourage, rather
than Englishness as a whole. Still, Kip's mentor in disarming bombs
comes to stand for what Englishness can be, to him. Kip sets himself up
as a living reproach to a still-much-loved older brother, who went to
jail rather than fight one day for the English.
been destroyed in the service of the Empire, stealing secrets (quite
literally), suffering horrible consequences, with no apparent concern
from the people he was stealing them for. Hana loses her father and
almost herself in the war, and has very specific reasons why she will
not leave her badly burned patient to die alone.
Patient is the story of these four, and how they knit a small community
out of the ashes of the destruction. Not in grand ways, in small ones,
working through suspicion, formality, and pain. They create a world
which no one who had not been through the conflagration would
understand, and come to some sort of equilibrium, having seen the worst
that they could see. Where simple patriotism has given way to weary
And then even that is shattered. The worst was yet
to come. And I never saw it coming, most of the political aspects being
excised when they made the movie. But once it had happened, nothing
could ever be the same. I had never even seen Ondaatje laying the
groundwork for that moment, but once it came, everything came together
Does that make the book a metaphor for the double fuze
[sic] bomb Kip has to figure out how to disarm? While I was paying
attention to one fuze, everything else was surreptitiously burning
towards this other source of an explosion.
The English Patient is
well worth reading. But the part that is the lion's share of the movie
is perhaps the smallest part of the book. I enjoyed the patient's
stories, but was far more engrossed in what was going on in their little
corner of France.