“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk on an earth without maps.
I carried Katherine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds.”
The English Patient, Part IX- The Cave of Swimmers,
By Michael Ondaatje
I have read countless books that I’ve loved, but I don’t think any have ever been as affecting as Ondaatje’s The English Patient. From the first few lines I was hooked on the serene quality of his prose, and how every chapter was almost like a poem or a song. He has a way with words that I’ve never seen before. It’s the one book I always go back to, even if it’s just to read one or two lines.
The story begins in an Italian villa, a few days after the Second World War is over. A young Nurse- Hana- resides there while caring for a mysterious patient, burned beyond recognition. They are joined in time by Caravaggio- a thief who has questions for the patient, and also an Indian sapper named Kip. Gradually, Ondaatje reveals dual narratives that beautifully intertwine. As we read the love unfolding between Hana and Kip, the patient drifts into deep memories of an affair he had before the war- that ultimately led to his current, disfigured state.
I feel like everybody should give this book a go. Even a few passages contain more allure and imagery than most books achieve with thousands of lines. The Guardian called Ondaatje after this book was released “one of the most innovative and liberating writers of our time.” They are 100% right! It’s more than just a tale of romance and war. The message runs deeper, touching on subjects such as gender, nationalism, colonialism, and religion. It is not only centred on battles in war, battles for affection, battles of wits- the main struggle depicted in the book is the battle of people against the limitations of society and life. The ideas presented are so human. One passage reads- “The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.” This small extract represents the major theme running throughout the work- that ultimately, we are all exactly the same, and it is only the lines drawn on maps that breeds an idea of difference. Ondaatje uses the desert as a place where nationality does not matter. The clothes of your country are removed and every character stands there identical in their humanness. They all feel and think and want. Maps are the only things causing separation… or, an illusion of separation.
He uses words as though they are waves, coming and going at the start and end of every page. You can feel the stifling heat of the desert and the sweat running down their necks, the sand getting caught on their flaming cheeks, the dreamy haziness of the villa as both life and death slowly seep into the cracks between bricks. Once read, this book is definitely not forgotten.