It’s warm and drizzly this morning as I write this post, and I’m sorry to say that this may be a very short post. I was going to take a full “sick day” from blogging today, as I’m not feeling my best and it’s been a super-busy weekend. But a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local fruit is sure to improve my disposition, at least in the short term.
My Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss The English Patient by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. This novel, which won both the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, as well as the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018, takes place in a deserted Italian villa near the end of World War II and centres on four dissimilar individuals all brought together by the war experience. Hana is a young Canadian nurse who has refused to leave with all the others when they abandon the villa hospital. Instead, she pours all her energy into caring for the English patient, an unidentified middle aged man who has suffered severe burns in a plane crash and is dying. Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and former friend of Hana’s father. He joins the war effort and comes looking for Hana when he hears that her father has died in the war. He discovers not only the young woman, but the English patient, whom he has been following off and on throughout the war. Kip is a young man from India who idolizes the English, joining the British army and becoming a sapper, charged with dismantling unexploded bombs. Although Hana thinks she has fallen in love with the English patient, she and Kip form a relationship that serves to offer hope in a time of utter despair. Caravaggio’s stay at the hospital serves two purposes: to watch over Hana and to try to get the English patient to reveal information about himself, his war experiences and his true identity. The English patient is nameless throughout most of the book, but Caravaggio suspects that he is really Count Laudislaus de Almasy, a Hungarian spy who, because of his vast knowledge of the African deserts, was aiding the Germans in their efforts to cross Northern Africa. Mystery surrounding the English patient is the main thing that unites the others, but they also discover that, despite their differences, they all share similar feelings and attitudes, of love and responsibility, loyalty and the need for release. Based on the impression I got from my book club members last month when I reminded them that this was the book for October, I didn’t think anyone would have read the book, let alone enjoyed it, but they surprised me. Most had read at least half of the book, and a few had actually finished it. One member, who complained the most about it last month, raved about it yesterday! The comment I heard most often from people was that they didn’t know what was going on, that the story was too hard to follow. This is absolutely true. It is not told in chronological order, but rather jumps back and forth in time, and is told from various points of view, too. And much of the narrative consists of sentence fragments. But everyone also commented on how lyrical and poetic the language was, the descriptions of even the smallest thing or occurrence. We spoke about the difficulty of being a spy, how challenging it would be to keep straight the different stories told to different individuals, and how the English patient withheld his identity, despite his severe physical condition, until the end. One member mentioned the English patient’s lengthy and poetic descriptions, particularly of the desert and the sandstorms, and we wondered whether this was perhaps a ploy, a way to distract Hana and the readers, from probing too deeply for personal information. This is a novel of love and war, of loyalty and deception and betrayal, and while my response to the novel when I finished it was to wonder whether this was truly the best book written in the English language in the past 50 years (as the Golden Man Booker Prize would suggest), after the discussion, I have a new appreciation for it. Maybe with these comments in mind, I may try rereading it sometime in the near future. It was a good book club selection, and provoked interesting discussion from all.
That’s all for today. I’m going to try to get out for a short walk, even if I have to dodge the raindrops.
Bye for now…