The English Patient: Ralph Finnes as Almasy, Juliette Binoche as Hana

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Like the regular morphine injections applied by Hana to the English Patient Almasy the novel slides in and out of several worlds featuring a small cast of characters and their past and present lives. Only in the final third do we begin to see their full stories in Michael Ondaatje’s literary and lyrical love story set before, during and just after World War Two.

It contrasts the here and now based in the confines of a ruined convent where the English patient Almasy lies dying attended by Hana his nurse – with fellow residents the bomb disposal sapper Kip and the suspicious thumb-less Caravaggio with their bruised, burnt and damaged pasts. It is Caravaggio who pieces together Almasy’s back story as he suspects Almasy was a German spy who betrayed the British during the North Africa campaign but due to Almasy’s badly burned body and English accent he cannot be too sure. While we also learn about Hana’s fight to stay sane while surrounded by death and Kip’s career as a servant of Empire – and of course the mystery behind the titular character – the English patient Almasy.

The English Patient: Ralph Finnes as Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine Clifton

The epic tone of the novel is layered with different but ultimately connected narratives with the story of Almasy at its core – who is he, is he really English and who was the love of his life?

There is also the back story of Kip the Sikh sapper and his journey to becoming a highly skilled bomb disposal expert – an activity which keeps him busy as the retreating German army have booby-trapped anything from a statue to a piano in war torn Italy. It allows Kip in particular to give the story a strong anti-war tone with his disgust at the folly of the wars of European nations and dropping of the atom bombs in Japan. In the film directed by Anthony Minghella he is played by Naveen Andrews and is relegated to a less influential role although the film plays up his romance with Hana with her birthday scene beautifully set with the tiny oil lamps lighting the path through the olive trees. Both are seeking emotional recovery from the traumas of war and of loss with the convent their medicinal bandage.

A long and complex novel it is hard to get into at first as the threads don’t immediately knit together due to a confusing multiplicity of voices relating various stories. And if you see the film you’ll also realise whole chunks of the novel are left out with some minor events given huge importance as Minghella plays up the visual splendour of the desert and some set pieces such as the social whirl of the British elite in pre-war Cairo. As so often is the case the characters in the film don’t always chime with the ones in your head from the descriptions given – especially Madox and Geoffrey Clifton. Where the novel is at hard to follow the film gives the sweeping landscapes of the desert with John Seale’s cinematography complete with an evocative score by Gabriel Yared greater visual prominence leaving stronger images in your head compared to the flowing prose of Michael Ondaatje’s novel.

We learn about the writings of the classical writer Herodotus and his The Histories which chart what was known then about the deserts of Libya and Egypt, the evolution of bomb making and bomb disposal work in the 1940s, the salvaging of artworks in the Italian campaign and archaeology in pre-war North Africa. It’s certainly a read that takes you to different places and different centuries connecting them through the landscapes and conflicts. I found myself looking up all manner of subjects as the novel whetted my appetite to learn about Satan bombs, Sikhs and the battles of Tobruk as the Germans so nearly conquered Egypt before once again falling back into the vastness of the desert. What we don’t learn much about are the people who live in those sun-bleached places whether it’s the guides, the Italian locals, Almasy’s rescuers or the market traders in Egypt’s capital. What we do learn is the relationships between the foursome and how war had transformed their live in this beautifully written novel. And we eventually learn how Katherine Clifton’s former lover came to be on his death bed in a bombed out Italian convent.

Harry Mottram

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+ The English Patient was first published in 1992 by Bloomsbury Publishing and in paperback in 2004. A film of the novel was released in 1996. It was directed by Anthony Minghella and starred Ralph Finnes as Almasy, Juliette Binoche as Hana, Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio, Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine Clifton, Naveen Andrews as Kip, Colin Firth as Geoffrey Clifton and Julian Wadham as Madox. The film received 12 nominations at the Oscars winning five BAFTAs and two Golden Globes. Critically acclaimed the movie is ranked in the top 100 films of the 20th century.