The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
Context

Author’s Biography

Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1943 in the midst of World War II. He moved with his mother, brother, and sister to England in 1952 before attending Bishop University in Quebec, Canada. He received his BA from the University of Toronto in 1965 and his MA from Queens University in 1967.

Ondaatje’s best known work is The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize upon its publication in 1992 and was adapted into a film by Anthony Minghella that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1997.

Ondaatje began his writing career by publishing poetry, first in 1967 with the book Dainty Monsters. Ondaatje’s poetry became an important part of his writing style, allowing him to experiment with fragmented consciousness, juxtaposition of unlike images, and experimental rhythm. He went on to publish The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in 1970, a hybrid work of poetry and novel, along with Coming Through Slaughter in 1976, another hybrid work, about the life of jazz pioneer, Billy Bolden, set in New Orleans in 1911.

Ondaatje considers In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which documents a Macedonian immigrant community in Toronto, his first real novel. Like Coming Through Slaughter, In the Skin of the Lion is minimal in dialogue, and blends documentary with fiction - establishing a precedent for a concern with historical accuracy found in much of Ondaatje’s future work.

In the Skin of Lion presents characters whose lives continue, chronologically, in The English Patient: Caravaggio and Hana, as they move into the 1940s and through World War II, and Patrick, the protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion, who dies in World War II. This is in keeping with Ondaatje’s stated feeling that his characters live on after he has finished writing them.

Ondaatje has written several Hollywood screenplays, including The Clinton Special, Sons of Captain Poetry, and Carry On Crime and Punishment. He recently collaborated with acclaimed editor Walter Mirch on a book about the editing process, and he wrote a series of critical works on songwriter Leonard Cohen. Ondaatje currently lives in Toronto with his wife, novelist/editor Linda Spalding. Ondaatje’s awards include the Ralph Gustafson Award, the Epstein Award, the President’s Medal from the University of Ontario, the Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Literature (twice), the Canada-Australia prize, and the Booker Prize.

Context

The English Patient, published in 1992, is Ondaatje’s most famous and critically acclaimed work. The novel won Ondaatje the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize in 1992, making him the only Sri Lankan writer ever to receive the honor. In 1996, Saul Zaentz produced The English Patient as a film, adapted by Anthony Minghella, starring Ralph Fiennes as Almasy and Kristen Scott-Thomas as Katharine Clifton. The film went on to win a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The English Patient features elements that define much of Ondaatje’s earlier work -- his concern for historical accuracy, his experiments with fragmented consciousness and fragmented grammar/sentence structure, and his poetic imagery. Indeed, the opening of the novel is an epigraph from the real-life National Geographic Society, reflecting Ondaatje’s penchant for blending documentary with fiction.

The English Patient also takes place during World War II, during which Ondaatje himself was born. The story involves four people converging on a villa and discovering the secrets of their past in an effort to move towards healing in the future. The book, like many of Ondaatje’s novels, isn’t slavish to plot constructions. Indeed, in several interviews Ondaatje has revealed that the plot didn’t really exist until he finished the first draft of the book. He frequently begins with only a generative image. Ondaatje, in an interview to Salon Magazine, even noted, "Almasy wasn’t in the story in my head. Kip wasn’t in the story. Caravaggio wasn’t in the story. It began with this plane crash and it went on from there."

Ondaatje has also noted that one of the more difficult passages of the book involved Kip’s departure from the villa, since it seemed slightly "deus ex machina," or willed through force of plot by an omniscient hand. Ondaatje says it is the one part of the book he’s often taken to task for, but he did the absolute best he could - and he doesn’t know "how to make it work better," since during the revision process he developed Kip’s character deeply enough to lay the groundwork for the departure.

The theme of revision comes up again and again in Ondaatje’s interviews about his work, especially in regards to The English Patient. When talking to celebrated editor Walter Murch, Ondaatje revealed that it is in revision that the true work is done, sculpting the gems of inspiration that come from the initial generative visions. He keeps working until he is finished, sometimes even taking up to 6 or 7 years to finish a book.

All in all, however, Ondaatje notes that he doesn’t believe in closure to his novels. At the end of The English Patient, after taking all his characters from their birth to a given destination, he abandons them, and sees a "new life beginning for Hana and Kip" off the page.

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