The English Patient


Michael Ondaatje




Date Reviewed:

May 3, 2007

hey made a movie out of this book? I have not seen the movie, but now that I have read The English Patient, I am puzzled why someone would select this novel to bring to the screen. The best part of this book is the beautiful writing. Ondaatje can turn a nice phrase. But how does beautiful writing translate into a good movie? I suppose I would have to see the movie.

The plot of this story is pretty thin. A badly burned man lies in an Italian villa as World War 2 is winding down. He is tended by a nurse, Hana. The man was burned in the Sahara desert in a plane crash, where he was rescue by Arab nomads. Eventually, he was turned over to the British hospital. So how does he end up in a villa in Italy? This wasn't clear to me. It's not like the British would continue to move a badly injured man closer and closer to the front lines as the Germans retreat. While the burned man lies in his bed, we learn the story about his great love for a married woman, and how she and her husband died in plane crash - she didn't die immediately, but the English Patient, who was at the crash site, was unable to save her.

Also living in the Italian villa is Kip. Kip is an Indian, serving as a mine and bomb defuser. I didn't understand why Kip hangs out with the others at the villa - shouldn't he be with his unit, following the retreating Germans? Kip goes out every time and disables booby traps. The retreating Germans have left tricky bombs every where - you can trip one by pressing a piano key, removing a book from a shelf, just walking outdoors. I found it hard to believe that the Germans would have had the time or inclination to make all these elaborate traps. They wouldn't have armed the bombs while they occupied Italy (after all, German soldier can also press piano keys or pull a book off of a shelf), so all the tricky traps must have been laid while the Allies are advancing and battle is raging. Who has time to make elaborate booby traps in an environment like that?

The fourth resident (other than Hana, Kip and the English Patient) of the villa is Caravaggio. Caravaggio is a thief, but he was caught once, and mutilated as punishment. Now he is addicted to opiates. We don't get too much of his story, but Caravaggio conveniently fills in a lot of knowledge of the English Patient's identity, because Caravaggio was serving in Egypt earlier in the war.

The acclaim for this book must all be for the prose. Ondaatje can write some wonderful sentences, he is a master word-smith. I just wish he had conjured up a plot equally as wonderful as his words.


This note added January of 2008: I have now seen the award winning movie based upon this book. I think the movie is better than the book. At least it seems to make a little more sense, but there still isn't any explanation as to why the burned English patient is moved from North Africa to a villa in Italy, nor why Kip is allowed to hang out at the villa, rather than being stationed with his unit. At least Caravaggio's appearance at the villa makes some sense in the movie. The cinematography of the film is beautiful, but I didn't find the love affair very convincing - the male star seems like an aloof jerk, what is there appealing about him?