Tom takes on Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker prize-winning novel
Many things happen in The English Patient. A decent chunk of them are interesting, cool things. A few of them are vaguely unsettling things (and not in a good way). However, most of them are just things. Most of them are things that simply occur. Most of them are things that simply occur, but in this specific sentence format, where the subject is repeated each time; each time, doing a new thing. These things do not necessarily correlate with one another or offer progression. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure many of these things matter. They simply happen, die, and then fade away within the same paragraph they are introduced, like Conrad’s natives in Heart of Darkness. If anything, that’s what reading this book is. It’s an upstream journey into the very core of a hazy and mystifying text, in the search for an answer, any answer at all. For the better? It’s hard to say.
I would like to preface this by saying I don’t think The English Patient is a bad book. As a matter of fact, it’s probably one of the best literary novels of the nineties. I’ve often heard it compared to an impressionist painting. You’re not supposed to focus too heavily on any section, any one given phrase. To do so is to miss the larger picture. And that picture is a wonderful one indeed. Some of the most interesting vignettes I’ve ever read are nestled in the middle sections of this book. Ondaatje’s attention to the minutiae of bomb defusal during the sapper Kip’s scenes is excellent, to say nothing of fascinating. And I’m not just writing that to pay lip service to the Goodreads troglodytes that would bash my head in if I didn’t mention it. This book deserves the praise it gets. I’m just not sure it deserves the chance.
One of the shortcomings of the aforementioned “impressionist” style is the fact that we don’t have the luxury of looking at the whole picture until we have read the whole book. It’s hard to even see that this book is intended to be read in this manner until around a third of the way in. That’s where things get iffy. Very, very iffy. Until that clarifying moment, Things Just Happen. And, as I said earlier, I don’t know if many of these things matter, having read the rest of the novel. Even worse, I’m not sure many of these things are good. Not even by this novel’s standard; I mean in general. The first chapter of this book is just bad. Prosaically and structurally bad, and intellectually lazy to boot. I’m not sure even Ernest Cline can lay claim to that much.
The first thirty pages of this book are a Markov Chain of literary events, except I can laugh when a Markov Chain accidentally names (((Them))) or tweets that All Lives Matter. I can not laugh when Ondaatje has me swallow the full load of a weirdly pedophillic scene. By the way, this is called figurative language. Figurative language usually works best when the language presented and the objects represented suit each other: in this case, phallic objects. Something that does not count as useful figurative language is Ondaatje’s conjuration (on the first page!) of the English Patient’s “penis” as a “sea horse”. Come on! I like dick, and that’s not hot. If it was meant to be anything but hot, well, I don’t know. I’d rather read about the clap. Or the clam, another, more common sea-based reference to genitalia which is similarly bad. I digress. It’s weird, mildly uninteresting, and above all, unnecessary.
So about that scene with the little boy. I promise I will get back to my larger argument. But I need to exorcise whatever it is that makes me tune out and look for beer, or chips, or anything that will comfort me through this ordeal. Let me first start by dropping the passage below:
“He [The English Patient] is given sight only after dusk, when he can witness his captors and saviours. Now he knows where he is. […] There is a boy dancing, who in this light is the most desirable thing he has seen. His thin white shoulders white as papyrus, light from the fire reflecting sweat on his stomach, nakedness glimpsed through openings in the blue linen he wears as a lure from neck to ankle, revealing himself as a line of brown lightning.
[…] And the pure beauty of an innocent dancing boy, like the sound from a boy chorister which he remembered as the purest of sounds, the clearest river water, the most transparent depth of the sea. […] A boy arousing himself, his genitals against the colour of fire.
Then the fire is sanded over, its smoke withering around them. […] One of the men crawls forward and collects the semen which has fallen on the sand. He brings it over to the white translator of guns [the English Patient] and passes it into his hands. In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.
I’m sure some brilliant post-structuralist could provide a reading of the stationary, disabled English Patient being “brought to each of the guns” akin to how he is moments later brought to the pubescent dancer boy who ejaculates in or near the campfire. I’m sure of it. I’m just not sure I care. Because the book does not care, either. The event occurs, makes me feel gross for the wine mom who found it arousing, and then is swept away by the sand, both literally and figuratively. It’s never mentioned again, and it’s not like it has any thematic relevance. And that’s glossing over the vaguely offensive undertones of the whole scene. I don’t care who writes about who. I don’t generally care about who writes what about who. God knows I spend half my time making fun of my working-class Irish family, and the other half of it making fun of my not-so-working-class Korean family. But it has a point. It touches upon a cultural nerve. Namely, that I love my family for who they are, or something like that. This — this thing — touches nothing. Besides maybe an underage boy and someone’s naughty academic kink.
I’m reminded here of Achebe’s essay on Heart of Darkness, “An Image of Africa.” As he argues in relation to Conrad, the reader of the passage above is comforted. Comforted that they can indulge in this regressive ritual in a continent and culture far from their own culture’s idiosyncrasies, through the lens of a damaged and tortured Westerner whom the reader is supposed to mysticize and adore (again, I hate pulling the identity card. It’s just too perfect here). What’s especially confusing about this passage is that Ondaatje is arguably a post-colonialist writer himself, and much of this book is a subtle but scathing critique of anglocentric (and more broadly eurocentric) World War II history. It’s mystifying that such a blatantly orientalist, and (more importantly) just bad passage exists anywhere, let alone in this book. Then again, I’m not sure what a lot the first chapter is doing here in The English Patient. With Achebe, Things Fall Apart. With Ondaatje, Things Just Happen.
However, this is just a part of the larger critique I have of The English Patient, that despite a larger cohesion, many individual lines fall apart on inspection as stylistically bad, thematically nonsensical or just downright syntactically incorrect. This book feels overwritten, in the sense that there are many small usage errors that are likely to be weeded out on first read; the kinds of small usage errors that fossilize when both writer and editor forget them out of familiarity. There’s one sentence in the first chapter that stands out in my mind, because I sent it to my mom, of all people, to complain about. I’m a student at NYU; I only text my mom to ask for more money or complain about my classes. Anyways, the sentence. When describing the church that the nurse and the English Patient are staying in, Ondaatje writes “They used only essential candlelight at night because of the brigands who annihilated everything they came across.” This sentence sucks and the italicized parts are the parts of it that suck. First of all, word choice. If I’m the editor here, “They used sparing candlelight.” Not “only essential candlelight,” which makes me want to cut both words until I realize that they mean “candlelight” that is rarely used, and not “candlelight” that is being used as opposed to lamps. Oh, and the reason that confusion is there is because “because” is a bad clausal connector here and it’s so bad that I’d have to rewrite this sentence from the ground up in order to properly stitch these relatively simple clauses together. How did this get past the editor? I’m writing this next to Jake, who just caught the same mistake in his girlfriend’s last minute reading response for a Gen Ed. Okay, we’re halfway through. “Brigands.” Who are these brigands? What value do they offer to the story? Ondaatje likes to cite history when it comes to the desert, and I’m sure he could have spared some time here because it’s a minor gripe, but I don’t know the context of these “brigands.” I just don’t know who they were in historical context. Okay, fine, I’m being pedantic. But I’m certainly not being pedantic when I say that “annihilated” is purple prose. Come on, annihilated? If you really wanted to, just say sacked. Hell, the Sacking of Rome was also an annihilation that took place in Italy, and even then they don’t call it that in The Books.
This cardinal sin is omnipresent in the writing. As a matter of fact that whole issue of clauses and word choice holds true for a lot of the prose early on. I get that it’s supposed to be poetic. I get that maybe, sometimes, you’re supposed to just skim across that aesthetic plane. That’s fine—if you’re a first year student at Tisch film who doesn’t feel like trying for their Aesthetics & Composition class. It’s vaguely pretty but technically lazy and utterly, utterly pointless beyond a demonstration of completion of a task. Even then, I don’t think Ondaatje has accomplished this. I don’t think he comes close. The prose is dry, flat, and above all else, mystifyingly bad.
This gets to one of the few literary questions I was presented with when going through The English Patient’s opening pages. What do books do in The English Patient? They seem to pop up all over the place, and characters are constantly reading. Well, Ondaatje is nice enough to make that clear for us. “[I] pull down a volume and inhale it,” the Patient says, in what is an inconsistent, utterly incomprehensible and brief shift to first person narration. I have a suspicion that that’s what Ondaatje wants us to do with this book. He wants us to sip it all up, like a very nice glass of tea at 4 P.M. Tea Time; inhale it, like the vapors of some intoxicating perfume. I regret to inform you that I don’t think I read this way, and although I can see its occasional merits, I don’t think I’d like to read this way. I’ve never done acid, but I’ve heard its proponents speak on its behalf in a similar fashion; and while that sounds cool, it also sounds fucking pretentious, pretentious in the way that makes me understand how Trump won. Unlike animals, books can be dissected and put back together without PETA getting on your case. If the parts work together, that’s great. If they don’t, well, then, again, I’m not a post-structuralist and don’t intend to be. You can thank my Intro to Comp Lit with Avital Ronell for that one.
This leads into the question of intention. Can we really criticize the opening, if it was intended to be this way? Ondaatje is undoubtedly a very, very smart writer. He also wants us to know it. About a third of the way in, right around when the book starts coming together, Ondaatje gives us some heavy-handed metacommentary, to let us know that he’s in on the gig. “But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat,” he writes, ever eager to impress us. Pedantic critique of his inconsistently “poetic” grammar aside, I’ll take his argument in good faith. Perhaps novels can be allowed to start with, as he calls it, “hesitation” and “chaos.” This one certainly does. But I don’t think that’s the reason I hate the start. There are plenty of postmodern novels that start all over the place, without any context, without any sense of “balance,” as he puts it. I think the reason I hate the start is because it’s just not written very well.
Maybe I’m not reading the book the way it is meant to be read, a Booker shortlist shoe-in that, when all is said and done, ends up Saying A Lot About Our Society or something like that. However, I am reading the book in the way that I might have if I found it in the Strand with no additional context, which I did, for $8.71. And, I know that this is a little bit of hubris, but I read this book as a Normal Dude, because the Normal Dude in me couldn’t help but gawk at the inexplicable passages so prevalent throughout the book’s opening act; choices that, while perhaps not Booker-breaking, meant that I had to trudge my way through it, more bored than impressed. I just can’t care about it like that. My mind starts to wander as I think about literally anything else in the fucking world. I don’t think I’m alone. The New York Times describes it as “A tale of many pleasures—an intensely theatrical tour de force”, which I’m pretty sure is Michiko Kakutani speak for “a book with words in it”. Seriously, that’s the most generic NYT pull-quote ever run through a blender and back.
That’s the thing, ultimately. Is this a Good Book? Yes. A masterpiece, even? Sure. Would I recommend it to anyone other than the erudite, oversocialized English majors in my crit theory course? No. The book is an exercise in everything that makes a book great besides the actual writing; emphasis on exercise. I’m sure there’s things to be gained from that, too. But there’s plenty of other good books that don’t have to try so hard to convince me of that; books that are confident in their ability to tell a story on its own merits, leaving everything else to the subtext, where these kinds of Things belong.