Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, January 12, 2019

"The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient was recently voted the Golden Man Booker Prize winner, theoretically making it the best novel of the past 50 years. It's certainly an interesting and beautifully written story, but I think it's too flawed to deserve that title. Ondaatje was a poet before he became a novelist, and it shows, both in a good and a bad sense. His prose is so lovely that it occasionally gave me little shivers of pleasure, but as a storyteller he is not that great.

That's not to say that there isn't a great story here - just that it's told in such an uneven, obscure way that the best parts of it are almost buried. I watched the movie version last night and I thought Anthony Mingarelli did much a better job than the author of identifying the emotional high points and weaving them into a satisfying narrative. 

Essentially this is a double love story: there is the tempestuous affair between Almasy and Katharine in the desert, and the gentler romance between Kip and Hana in the Italian villa. In the book, neither is given the focus it deserves but Kip and Hana's is certainly evoked in more detail. Which is weird because the adultery in the desert is obviously a much more dramatic subject. There are hints in the book of the outline of a great, heartbreaking tragedy, but for the most part Almasy and Katharine's story is skimmed over, told in a passive, cursory way, as little more than a backstory. 

Mingarelli, on the other hand, recognised that backstory as the epic, sweeping romance it really was and shifted it to the center of the narrative, inventing a host of strong scenes that are barely even hinted at in the book. He also gave Katharine a personality (in the book, she is a curiously blurred presence) and made Almasy thinner and better-looking. But that's Hollywood for you! At times, it's true, the movie veers into melodrama ('I always loved you,' says Katharine in a choked-up voice, before the orchestra swells), but on the whole I think that kind of overstatement is better-suited to this subject matter (World War Two, doomed love, the desert) than Ondaatje's oblique understatement.

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