MAN BROOKER PRIZE
Booker club: The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje's novel was a joint winner of the 1992 prize, but its brilliance is such you can understand why Barry Unsworth's has been rather eclipsed
Ralph Fiennes in the film of The English Patient.
Photograph: Phil Bray/AP
Fri 4 Mar 2011
All of which is not to diminish Sacred Hunger. I haven't read it either (that's for next time) and have no reason to doubt the competition was hard fought. By all accounts the judges were bitterly and passionately divided about the books: the decision was made just 30 minutes before the ceremony, and the chair, Victoria Glendinning, characterised the awarding of the prize as a "necessary nonsense".
Fri 4 Mar 2011
In 1992, for only the second time in its history, the Booker Prize was divided between two books: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. The English Patient has been translated into 40 languages, has sold more than 1m copies, and turned into an Oscar-winning film. Scared Hunger has ... well ... have you read it?
Even so, viewed through the reverse telescope of history it seems surprising that Ondaatje's novel had to share the prize. Especially since it's so damn good.
In case you're one of the few people who've neither read the book nor seen the film, The English Patient centres around an Italian villa towards the end of the second world war, where four variously damaged characters try to come to terms with the past. The titular patient isn't, in fact, English. He's a Hungarian desert explorer called Laslo Almasy (very loosely based on a real man) who was burned black after a plane crash on the Libya-Egypt border. He spends the book on what he knows to be his deathbed, recounting the story of his doomed love affair with a married woman, Katharine Clifton. This story is extracted by a former thief and spy, Caravaggio, who uses his knowledge of morphine addiction (developed after Axis torturers removed his thumbs) to make the patient garrulous. Almasy is also tended by a young nurse, Hana, who is herself a victim of war, shell-shocked and grieving for her father's death under arms. Finally, there is Kip, a Sikh bomb disposal expert who becomes Hana's lover and the patient's admirer and friend.
The character of the English patient may be sophisticated, adult and troubled, but there's plenty of Indiana Jones in his archaeological discoveries, incredible journeys, wartime intrigues, and even the accident that spills him from his plane wearing "an antlered hat of fire". Then there's Caravaggio's thieving and spying, Kip's bomb disposal and Hana the beautiful nurse ... This is a book imbued with the spirit of Boys' Own Adventure. It makes sense that it made such a good film – even if the most impressive feature of the book, Ondaatje's prose, can't be caught on celluloid.
Much has been said about the richness of Ondaatje's writing, the sensuousness of his physical descriptions and his poet's gift for using well-timed silences and ellipses to speak volumes. All that's true. But the thing that impressed me most as I read the book this time around is its hard centre. It may come wrapped in musky perfume, but Ondaatje's prose could go a few rounds with Hemingway and probably knock out Kipling, too.
The latter is a comparison the author audaciously invites. At one point Hana reads the patient an extract from Kim:
"He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zamzamah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."
He interrupts her to say:
"Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."
It's a fairly incidental and subdued passage in the greater scheme of things. There are far brighter pyrotechnics in the book. But it's a good example of how hard Ondaatje's writing works. It works firstly because it's spot on: try and read that quote with and without commas. It works thematically: immediately you start thinking about empire and its impact, about the Orient, about adventure, about how much Kipling himself lost in war. It works because it illuminates the polymath English patient: he's just the sort of man to have an opinion on how to read Kipling – and to be right about it. It works – craftily – as a guide to reading Ondaatje himself: The English Patient too should be taken slowly and with careful attention to rhythm. And so it is throughout the book. You get the sense that every word is straining and bursting with meaning. Every word has been made to labour as well as delight. Everything is turned up to 11. Everything, in short, works.
Or almost everything. I should also note that some of the novel has come in for criticism. Most notably, there have been objections to the way the book ends, with the detonation of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some have said that it seems rather tacked on – and it's true that the bombs do have a strange and unsettling impact at the culmination of the narrative. Personally, I felt that to be true to the brutal way the bombs cut short the war, but it isn't an easy termination.
There has also been controversy – particularly in the US – about the following remark: "They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation." It's certainly uncomfortable reading. Possibly because it's too true. Possibly because it's impossible to prove either way. There is one important point to make about it though – and that is that Ondaatje himself does not present it as a simple black and white statement of fact. It is not Kip – as most critics seem to think – who owns the line. Caravaggio says it as he attempts to explain why Kip has found the nuclear bomb so upsetting. Yet Kip's horror can just as much be ascribed to his role as a sapper as to his race. He's spent the whole war trying to prevent explosions. He's risked everything time and again to save maybe a few hundred Allied lives – and now the Allies have killed millions at a stroke. Actually, the line is just another example of how everything Ondaatje writes has depth and ambiguity that rewards slow reading and careful thought - just another demonstration of his meticulous talent. This is a book to be savoured, re-read and remembered. It is wonderful. I'm going to be very curious to see how Sacred Hunger measures up.