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the english patient

12 june 2012

If you google "greatest paragraphs literature," there are fewer results than you might think. The most frequently nominated paragraph is the end of James Joyce's "The Dead". There's some support for the opening paragraphs of Lolita, and an idiosyncratic but insightful vote for the close of John Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother". And when the question was posed on Yahoo! Answers New Zealand, somebody typed in several pages of a Harry Potter novel.

I have my own candidates, of course. Emma Bovary slowly forgetting the ball at Vaubyessard; Bayardo San Román showing up at Ángela Vicario's doorstep with a suitcase full of unopened letters; J.R. Ackerley wondering if dogs have headaches. And any number of paragraphs from Proust: "va avec le petit," "ils sont patients, ils ne se lassent pas," (do a CTRL + F with those phrases on the linked pages). Or the death of Bergotte; or simply

Un petit coup au carreau, comme si quelque chose l'avait heurté, suivi d'une ample chute légére comme de grains de sable qu'on eût laissé tomber d'une fenêtre au-dessus, puis la chute s'étendant, se réglant, adoptant un rythme, devenant fluide, sonore, musicale, innombrable, universelle: c'était la pluie.
Such paragraphs are usually made all the greater by the context of the work that precedes them. (Even the opening paragraphs of Lolita deepen in retrospect after you've read the entire novel; the closing paragraphs are magnificent as well, even at a first read.) The end of "The Dead," for instance, is just a nice, somewhat austere description of snow, unless you come to it the way Gabriel does, after living through a microcosm of Irish history and having had a stunning insight into a private past.

And so it is with the great set-piece paragraph that ends Almásy's story in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient.

And all the names of the tribes, the nomads of faith who walked in the monotone of the desert and saw brightness and faith and colour. The way a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes part of. We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for this all to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps. (261)
The English Patient is a novel much overshadowed by its ponderous film version. I saw the film first, and studiously avoided reading the novel for several years thereafter. My loss! Filmmaker Anthony Minghella opted to heighten the melodramatic aspects of Ondaatje's novel wherever possible, and of course to distend the production to 162 minutes. (The book is 300 pages long; there should be a cinematic law preventing the ratio of movie minutes to novel pages from exceeding 1:2.) It's a gorgeous film, and a treat for fans of the novel (which in time I would become), but it abandons dramatic tension for long stretches in favor of epic vistas.

And Juliette Binoche, despite her Academy Award, is fatally miscast. Hana, the nurse at the center of Ondaatje's novel, is a compelling character because she really is not in her right mind.

She was twenty years old and mad and unconcerned with safety during this time, having no qualms about the dangers of the possibly mined library or the thunder that startled her in the night. (13)
But Binoche just smiles gently through the movie, with an exaggeratedly lovely air of wistfulness, instead of the intense wilfullness with which Ondaatje's Hana grabs the reader.

The English Patient, the novel, gives us a static situation informed by hideous and violent passions that have ebbed with the end of the war. Four characters – Hana, the thief Caravaggio, the sapper Kip, and the enigmatic title character, burned beyond recognition – stay in a ruined Tuscan villa because they can't seem to shift themselves and move anywhere else, so traumatized are they by what they've been through. (The English patient literally can't move at all, and the others seem locked in his field of gravity.)

Within this small provisional community, the conversation is desultory, often driven by drink and drugs. Ondaatje piles all kinds of scraps of learning, popular culture, and observation into lyrical passages of description and dialogue. The results may seem precious to some readers; I wouldn't dismiss that response out of hand. I think it's a great novel, though, one of those that back-cover blurbs tell you to savor, and one in a hundred of which might really be worth the savoring. The guiding principle of the novel is the commonplace book. The English patient has saved his own, a much-annotated copy of Herodotus, from the catastrophe of his life. As the summer of 1945 drags on, he pastes bits of himself into the memory of his three companions. Their backstories fill in gradually, with many vivid anecdotes, and the towering romance between the Patient and Katherine Clifton that forms most of the interest of Minghella's film. (It's towering in Ondaatje's novel because we get it in such small doses, and it's oddly vitiated in the film, despite or because of Kristin Scott Thomas's energetic performance; somehow, we see too much of the love story in the movie, and it becomes just another elaborately-scored weeper.)

Yet as much as I love the getting there, I sometimes think that my deep pleasure in The English Patient is predicated mostly on waiting for the "We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes" paragraph. I read the novel this summer, at the rate of 20 pages a day, knowing that that paragraph was waiting for me. When I got to it, my cat promptly walked across my lap and my open book in the middle of it. Literature is, after all, just a spell that someone's words cast on us.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. New York: Vintage [Random House], 1993.