Why Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’ deserved the Golden Man Booker

Special accolade celebrates 50th anniversary of the literary prize

Canadian-Sri Lanka author Michael Ondaatje speaks after being named the winner of the Golden Man Booker for his novel 'The English Patient' at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Sunday. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

Canadian-Sri Lanka author Michael Ondaatje speaks after being named the winner of the Golden Man Booker for his novel 'The English Patient' at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Sunday. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

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Beauty and doomed romance has decided the Golden Man Booker. Victory for Michael Ondaatje’s seductive war time thriller, The English Patient, over five of his fellow Booker and Man Booker winners spanning five decades, is not only a popular outcome – it was after all decided by public vote – it is an overwhelming endorsement of literary fiction.

Yet again Man Booker’s innovative flair, which has driven this always intriguing, at times infuriating and rarely boring showcasing of a diverse range of novels written by an equally diverse range of English-language writers, has achieved its goal – generating interest in fiction.

In the case of The English Patient, a poet’s novel written with devastating imagery and a complex narrative structure, the widest possible range of readers have engaged with an intense literary novel which makes a bow to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as well as Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria quartet and the great Paul Scott. Publishers should take heed, never underestimate the general reading public.

Also shortlisted for the Golden Booker were: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul; Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

In The English Patient, a dying man, trapped in a charred body, inert,  is tended by a young nurse who is herself battling loss. The immediate setting is an abandoned villa in Italy yet the story really takes place years earlier in the Sahara, revealed in dramatic sequences recalled by the English patient as he delves further into his past, almost as if he is an historian.

Ondaatje’s theme is tormented passion complicated by confused notions of idealism, betrayal and honour. Just as the novel is an epic poem in itself,  the deadly passion is released by the reciting of an ambivalent verse, told as a fireside entertainment.

Judge Kamila Shamsie, who chose The English Patient as her winner from the 1990s, said it “is that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight. It moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate - one moment you’re in looking at the vast sweep of the desert and the next moment watching a nurse place a piece of plum in a patient’s mouth”.

It is easy to say and, equally, probably easy to claim that The English Patient is one of the most, if probably the most, beloved of winners of this 50-year-old literary bun fight. There are a few reasons: poet Michael Ondaatje is a revered writer and was already well established as an innovative poet capable of performing eloquent miracles in several volumes including an early wonder, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, part novel, part verse sequence. His memoir, Running in the Family, is among the finest in the genre, while his dazzling Coming Through Slaughter, an imaginative reconstruction of the life of jazz legend Buddy Bolden,  prepared the way for a brilliant novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987), about migrant workers in early 20th century Canada. That novel prepared the ground for The English Patient. In fact one of its central characters, Caravaggio the thief, helps lure the memories which tell the story of the English patient, the disfigured enigma waiting for a death best described as release.

The novel belongs to Hana – for her the dying man represents salvation.

While Ondaatje, now 74, and the author of seven novels, enjoys a devoted readership, Anthony Minghella’s 1996 screen adaptation, which won nine Oscars including Best Film and Best Director, also played a huge part in drawing additional readers to the novel.

The movie it must be said belongs more to Katherine, whose relationship with Almasy, the English patient, although more alluded to than explored in the novel, proves every bit as destructive as that shared by Heathcliff and his Catherine. Whatever about the structural changes, both novel and movie share an atmosphere of memory, loss and regret.

After my review of The English Patient was published in The Irish Times in September 1992, Minghella contacted me. He came to Dublin and we had lunch. He asked me about the novel, which he repeatedly referred to as “gorgeous, so gorgeous”. Before that, I had done a piece for Canadian television on In the Skin of a Lion, and was a proven Ondaatje fan, reading all his work. Minghella, who died suddenly in 2008,  saw this and as a true romantic, offered me a job as a researcher on his “English Patient project”. I didn’t take him up on it.

In recent weeks Michael Ondaatje has published Warlight, another superb narrative of memory and profound feeling. His mastery of language at its most beautiful shapes his art. A beautiful, technically ambitious and profoundly moving novel is again being celebrated and, the public decided.

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