The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s third novel, won the Booker Prize, the Canadian Governor General’s Award, and the Trillium Award. It was in part a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which featured Patrick, Hana, and Caravaggio. In 1996, The English Patient was adapted by Anthony Mighella into a very successful film that focused mainly on the love affair between Almásy and Katharine Clifton. The film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing (Walter Murch), and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Juliette Binoche). It also won three Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as five British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, including Best Film.
Ondaatje is both a poet and a novelist. The English Patient combines the best of both genres: It has a very powerful, elegiac, lyrical, imagistic, and romantic quality, and it also has a very strong sense of narrative setting (historical, geographical, artistic, and architectural) and plot (the mystery of the unidentifiable burned patient). In addition, Ondaatje skillfully weaves into his story an intertextuality that blurs genres and texts. He includes direct quotations from bomb manuals, historical sources, British Geographical Society meeting minutes, popular songs, poems, letters, and other novels—including Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma, 1895), and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886). He also includes quotations from the biblical stories of David, Solomon, Jeremiah, and Isaiah; Tacitus’s Ab excessu divi Augusti (c. 116; Annals, 1598), and—most of all—Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709). Pushing the boundaries of genre and of text also allows Ondaatje to emphasize his theme of the blurring of personal and national identities in the theater of war.
Ondaatje is mainly concerned with the ways in which history and memory produce personal and national identity. In The English Patient, national identity is secondary to the personal identity that is formed through love. Almásy proclaims, “Erase nations!” Romantic love is transgressive, crossing and confusing boundaries. Almásy is primarily identified by his love for the desert and his love for Katharine, each of which crosses boundaries. He is an explorer and cartographer of a shifting and inhospitable landscape, and his love for Katharine is illicit. Both loves feature prominently in Almásy’s bedraggled, annotated, and supplemented copy of Herodotus’s The History, which becomes a symbol of his self and his life. The book becomes all that remains of him after his death.
As Almásy puts it, “Words . . . have a power.” The mutilated and addicted Caravaggio, a man who is physically and spiritually fragmented, rediscovers his friend’s daughter Hana and reestablishes his love for her, which is both paternal and erotic. She creates a necessary link...
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