Critical Context

The English Patient received the Booker Prize for literature in 1992 and became popularly known through the award-winning film of the same title produced in 1996. The novel is an outgrowth of Michael Ondaatje’s other works such as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Coming Through Slaughter (1976), and In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which focus on historical figures to convey what might have been, an imaginary reconstruction of the past. Ondaatje’s techniques call attention to the subjectivity of his and all historical accounts, as well as the role feelings and imagination play in conveying “facts” about the past. In his works, including The English Patient, he blurs distinctions between history and fiction, reporting and inventing, reality and myth.

In addition, as with Ondaatje’s other works, The English Patient is postmodern in its complexity. Its narration shifts from past to present, country to country, character to character. Fragments of Western literature and World War II music are interspersed with 1945 conversations between characters or flashbacks to 1939 and the early period of the war. Using multiple settings and characters from diverse national backgrounds, Ondaatje conveys the postcolonial nature of his fictional world: the death of empire; the tragedy of boundaries; the crosscultural, multinational, global experience of his characters; the violence and chaos of twentieth century life.