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Last month (July 2018), one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, celebrated its 50th anniversary by bestowing the Golden Man Booker Prize on Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
This makes the Sri Lanka-born/Canadian author’s book the best work of fiction among titles previously awarded the Man Booker Prize over the last 50 years.
The book was selected through a public poll, after one book from each of the past five decades of winners was selected by a panel of judges. Ondaatje’s 1992 novel beat out In A Free State by V.S. Naipaul (1970s), Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1980s), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2000s), and Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders (2010s).
As someone who has never read Ondaatje’s works, and also somehow missed out on all the hype of the multiple-Oscar-winning film adaptation of The English Patient in 1996, I was quite intrigued by the honour accorded to the book. It is, of course, by no means definitive, and the selection process is of course also limited in several ways at each stage. However, despite all this, I thought the book selected as the best work of fiction among all other Man Booker winners to date deserved at least a read.
Being relatively unfamiliar with Ondaatje’s writing, the first thing that struck me was the vividness of his prose – not surprising perhaps, given that he is also a poet. Set just after World War II, his story of a wounded, anonymous pilot with no memory and the young nurse who tends to him, is filled with hauntingly beautiful imagery that serves as both backdrop and an integral part of the tale.
Against this, the story first unfolds slowly and rather quietly as we are introduced to Hana, a Canadian army nurse at a villa in Italy that was a former war hospital. She has chosen to stay behind alone to care for the nameless man rescued from a burning plane in the desert, the titular English patient. The two are eventually joined by two others: a Canadian thief named Caravaggio whom Hana knows from her childhood, and Kip, a Sikh soldier with the British military who specialises in diffusing bombs.
The English patient’s only possession is a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, which he had filled with his own notations. And as the story moves back and forth from the present to the past, bits and pieces of how he came to be in his current state begin to surface.
There are many things to savour about The English Patient: the way Ondaatje delicately builds his characters detail by detail, gesture by gesture; the way he contrasts intimate, meditative moments with grandly cinematic events.
But the thing that captivated me the most was the way he shapes and reimagines the idea of stories and histories throughout the book. It is hardly a coincidence that Herodotus was the first to document history, and that a reshaped version of his work is instrumental in not just us but the patient himself regaining his own history. And as the truth about the patient’s story is slowly revealed to us, Ondaatje causes us to question the forming of histories, personal or otherwise, itself – how easily they can be created, destroyed, and recreated.
All of the four characters in the villa, in fact, are struggling to piece their own stories back together. Each has been damaged by the war in his or her own way, some visible and others latent but no less severe. And each revisits parts of his or her own story, using them as building blocks to rebuild the parts of themselves they’ve lost – and yet, these recollections inevitably intertwine with each others’, becoming new stories and histories.
Much like the books from the villa’s library, which Hana uses to repair the house’s staircase, each of the characters’ stories evolve to become something else: not quite what they were in the start, but rather, an odd, incomplete new thing. Yet this new thing has its own purpose, and a strange charm of its own. And like the staircase, these patched together stories connect too – in this case, they connect the four isolated characters both to each other, and to who they used to be.
I couldn’t say definitively whether The English Patient is the best of the last five decades of Man Booker winners, or even whether such a choice can actually be made. However, for people who see the value in stories, who love them for both their power and their problems, this is a book worth reading – and perhaps re-reading, too.