Old friends: Michael Ondaatje

I’m revisiting some of the old mates living in my bookshelves; Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient was my first pick.

Wow!  Just, Wow!

I first read this just after the film was released in 1996 and obviously didn’t appreciate its brilliance. Or maybe I did, because I kept it, and it (and its many friends) has travelled with me many kilometres up and down the east coast.  The book itself isn’t in too bad condition, considering long periods in packing boxes, a little foxing at page edges only. But I’m confused by the publication details:  the cover is from the film, released in 1996, with Ralph Fiennes looking sexy and staring off into the desert. Colours all yellows and browns, of course. But the publication details read ‘this edition published 1993 by Picador. Maybe Picador just changed the cover – but doesn’t that make it a different edition? The vagaries of the publishing world.

So why did the book so engross me this time? (Don’t you just love rhetorical questions?)

The narrative shape of it, for a start. The assumption that the reader is intelligent enough to follow the jumps through time without a map except the text itself. I reckon that most current publishing house editors would have a fit at this and demand more structure, more signposts as to those leaps. Not mine, of course, as she’s the best.

And the language! Open it at any page and beautiful sentences leap out, polished and perfect for that specific moment in the story. Try these random picks:

‘A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father—whenever she collected moments of him…’

‘Removed from his barracks Singh had no idea of his location. There was a map on a roller high up on the ceiling. Alone one morning he pulled the roller down until it touched the floor. Countisbury and Area. Mapped by R. Fones. Drawn by desire of Mr James Halliday. “Drawn by desire…” He was beginning to love the English.’

Desire, of course, is at the very heart of the story. Desire sexual, desire for love, desire for peace, desire for country. And Ondaatje’s  tiny drops of language reinforce that without the reader being aware. Surely this can be done by only the best writers.

I moved on to his Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalised story of the life of the Jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, published in 1979. I loved this book when I first read it, but this time I got a bit impatient with it for some reason. I see now that it was rather a dress-rehearsal for The English Patient, with its structure that is like impro jazz, but it doesn’t have the depth and layers that The English Patient has.

It could be that my reading has matured as I age; or that writing fiction myself makes me very appreciative of the complexity of really good writing. Whatever, re-reading The English Patient was more than worthwhile — it has been a long time since I’ve read a book right through without putting it down.


I’m about to tackle Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron. I’ll let you know!

Author: Glen Guest

writer, editor. All about words.

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