I am so glad that the Booker Project led me to reread this book. I must have read it first shortly after it came out. What I remembered: a fascination with words, maps, and underground places. Kip and Hana’s slowly blossoming love.
What I hadn’t remembered but discovered on the second reading: the many literary allusions; the rejection of nationality; the violence of the relationship between the title character, whose name is Almasy, and Katherine; the maturation of the women, both Katherine and Hana.
The movie, as I remember it, focuses on the passion between Almasy (played by my nominee for Official Actor of the Booker Prize, Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. However, I found that the book explored many other passions and relationships in more depth: Almasy’s passion for the desert; Kip’s love for his adoptive British “family”; Caravaggio’s love for the grown-up Hana that he first knew as a child. Even Almasy and fellow explorer Madox’s friendship seems to outweigh the affair. The novel ends with parallel scenes from Kip’s and Hana’s lives, not Almasy’s and Katherine’s.
I’ve read three Ondaatje novels now: this one, The Cat’s Table, and Anil’s Ghost, which I listened to, read by Alan Cumming with his lovely accent. I liked them all, but The English Patient is undoubtedly the best, in my view. All are concerned with issues of national origins and adopted countries, as Ondaatje was born to Dutch and South Asian parents in Sri Lanka, then later chose to live in Canada.
The book is brilliant for telling such a complex story so beautifully in such a short space. Don’t get me wrong, I love long books and series in which I can lose myself for several days or even weeks, but there is something I admire about a tale told in such a concise yet intricate fashion. I can still remember my imaginary visions of the Italian villa from my first reading, it is so vividly depicted. At the same time, the plotline shifts forward and backward in an experimental fashion, with Almasy’s morphine-enhanced memories.
This novel was chosen as the Best of the Bookers in celebration of the prize’s fifty-year anniversary, and so far I must agree. The Remains of the Day would be my choice for runner-up, another book that slowly but concisely reveals a complex story.