Journal Prompt – a book I love and one I didn’t.
Off the bat, I choose to rebel. The English Patient is a book I love and I hate. The prose is unbelievable. It’s like dipping into a refreshing pool in the dead heat of summer, when the water is just cool enough to raise goose pimples at the back of your neck. It’s of no surprise to me that eight years passed while he wrote the book, as every sentence draws emotion in some way or another, typically in a procession from confusion to dim light to heartbreaking understanding. Every word contributes, either to plot, theme, setting, or character development. A mountain of book, it would require three or four readings to dig up and unpack all the metaphors and images, which sit in your brain until they unfurl like a tea blossom or like ink blooming in water.
Beyond an verdant commitment to beauty through prose, the themes – colonial and postcolonial discourses, the loss of identity, national rhetoric, the inabilities to translate cartography against humanity and the devastating effects to which the practice has been used– merge seamlessly into the plot and never quite sway into preachiness other than a few comments by the English Patient, who is established early on to be rather highfalutin and knowing.
I’ll be honest – I read the book because I wanted to see the movie, and I like to torture myself with literary adaptations to film, which never live up to their promises, often leaving me with the same hollow feeling I get from eating Mexican food in Washington state. (Memoirs of a Geisha, anyone?) I remember the VHS case in my Grandma Di’s collection of movies, and Naveen Andrews plays Kip, and either of those reasons was good enough for me to dedicate an afternoon to the novel.
I read while the movie downloaded, and since I already had developed a mental connection with the actors, I was excited to sit down with my tea and feel the spine of the book crinkle against my fingertips. I get excited over Naveen Andrews anyway, and this was one better. That was in the early afternoon about a month ago, on a Saturday. I read for the next twelve hours (the book is about 300 pages in length.) The pages read like plodding through a bog barefoot; my eyes would take in a sentence and then track back through the murk to find the trail once again. That sounds awful, but picture the bog less like Mordor and more like the Italian countryside, and soon you come to recognize that the prose is so lush and beautiful and striking that there were many moments in which I tracked back purposefully, just to feel the words crashing over me again. An example:
“It was essential to remain still, the way he had relied on statues during those months when they moved up the coast fighting into and beyond each fortress town until there was no difference in them, the same narrow streets everywhere that became sewers of blood so he would dream that if he lost balance he would slip down those slopes on the red liquid and be flung off the cliff into the valley.”
Although it’s valid to raise an argument against the wordiness of the sentence, the images drawn forth are powerful enough to give the reader some incentive to work through the bulk and put them together, rather like only being rewarded with the whole of Orion after locating the three dots of his belt. Kip relied on statues – tangible, solid, cold things that do not want from us or tax us, and perhaps importantly because he is a young man, illustrate the perfect form of a woman – and repeatedly sought them out, laying against them for protection and to soothe himself from the daily horrors of war. In this scene, he becomes a statue for Hana, illustrating his inability to disengage from the endless, momentary threat of danger. In the moments leading up to the quote, they nearly died from a particularly malicious bomb (left by Germans, who occupied their villa previously) and instead of feeling grateful for life, Kip becomes irritated with Hana for not heeding his instructions to leave (she’s become a distracting factor to him, and he doesn’t care to owe things to people.)
Another bit I enjoyed before I vomit all over the novel:
“I was a man fifteen years older than she, you understand. I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in a book.”
This is Caravaggio speaking of Hana – twenty-something words that carry a tremendous weight in terms of his character and foreshadows a few uncomfortable interactions between him and Hana/Kip.
While I read, I had several lightbulb moments, in which the book would come to rest on my knees while I processed the words in relation to the theme or plot, and my eyes would fall back to the page, devastated that a mere mortal could string together such tiny bombs of angst and love and compassion. I can only hope to develop my skill as a storyteller to the point that a reader desires to throw the damn thing across the room for fear of developing cardiac arrhythmia.
I have two problems; the ending, and myriad depictions of Kip throughout the novel. Though I’m much closer to understanding Hana as a person, Kip is my favorite character. His lush backstory provided a wealth of information to use as a framework for processing his decisions through the main plot – although things felt a little rushed at the end, almost as if the author got to a certain point and said – well, we can we do with him now? And I’m not accusing Ondaatje of that – the universe knows how painstakingly each sentence and plot point was crafted.
That aside, a troubling problem exists in the descriptions of Kip’s physicality. A few examples:
“He would be pregnant with her.”
“…the slight singsong of his voice…”
“She imagines all of Asia through the gestures of this one man.”
“She holds an Indian goddess in her arms, she holds wheat and ribbons.”
Kip is a sapper, an engineer who disposes of bombs for the British military. He faces death, day in, and day out, and yet he is repeatedly referred to being weak, slight, small, and brown.
I see two possibilities – either the author fully understood and used the feminization of Asian men trope to further the breakdown of his national identity, or to give a bit womanly credence to his ability to bounce between English and Sikh customs, but the descriptions left me cringing. This is a man who laid down in a church next to a cold statue and waited for death to arrive – he’s a badass, and though there’s nothing inherently wrong with femininity, I could have done without him being described as an Indian goddess.
CAVEAT – multifaceted, deeply layered decisions are employed by the author – there is so much going on behind the words that it feels impossible for me to pinpoint where choices were made in a deliberate fashion and where they slide into a good natured, but ultimately flawed attack on racism. Kip is the colonized – he is the other. From the perspective of political identity, he is the weaker, the smaller, and the less powerful in opposition to the forces of colonization and to Almásy. So perhaps a good question arises here – who are we are writing for – when does a story become more theme than plot, and is purple prose as racist as the alternate stereotype?
There was enough movement in the story to keep theme at arm’s length until the end, when I turned on the movie, and raged, blind with wrath, for the next two hours and forty-one minutes. Oh, Hollywood. You disappoint me. I don’t know – I didn’t check, but I’m guessing Kip (and by proxy, Naveen Andrews) is in that damn movie for all of seventeen minutes. It broke my heart, especially when such whitewashed bullshit won so many Oscars. Grrrrrr….
As far as the ending – I won’t spoil it for those who feel inspired to pick it up, but I will say that I found it to be weak. He moves mountains through time and space, creating a grand narrative designed to deconstruct nationalism and draw attention to alternative forms of history – and he wrapped my emotions into a tight ball of drama and angst, and then didn’t give me what I most wanted for the two characters I came to root for – a sense that it is possible to find love and keep it across boundaries, both real and imagined.