Ondaatje wrote The English Patient in 1992. That same year he won the Man Booker Prize for literature. In 1996, Hollywood made a movie based on the book, it won 9 academy awards. By this point I was 10 years old. Not the age to comprehend nor appreciate the themes of this book and so it would be a long time before fate would determine its place in my literary heart.
Two weeks ago I watched Ondaatje on stage in conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro discussing their writing persuasion and styles. Ondaatje revealed his penchant for collage – he made a media collage for Ishiguro charting his friendship with his fellow writer, it was quite amusing. It was then that I started to unravel my frustration with this book that I’d only read 70 pages of before meeting its author.
Now I have finished 324 pages later, 2 weeks from commencement and I’m in awe. Ondaatje opened up a new realm of writing for me, he unlocked self and societal imposed barriers to writing and reading, he created an ephemeral world hopping between 4 characters, 4 worlds, inextricably colliding together in odd harmony in a hilltop town in Italy.
In these 300 odd pages we move from Somerset in England, to Canada to Italy to the deserts of Libya, to Cairo and repeatedly back again to a minefilled abandoned hospital with a Sikh bomb disposal specialist, a severely burned Englishman, a Canadian nurse and a middle aged thief.
I finish this book in awe at Ondaatje’s ability to capture the ephemeral and leave the reader content to move on with his life upon conclusion, content that memories don’t fade, feelings don’t evaporate, they live on, even if time and distance separates. Our lives move on, separately but still together.
This isn’t a book that will revolutionise your life, this is a book that will revolutionise your reading, and if you are a writer, it will break the mould so that there is no mould except your own blank canvas to play with your own originality.
I appreciate that Ondaatje acknowledged so many other writers and almost refuted the claim that his book was the book of the last half century but truly this book is a work of literary art. A worthy winner of the Golden Manbooker prize 2018.