REVIEWERS LIKE to hedge their bets. After all, you might be wrong, in which case it's better to err on the side of being too critical rather than too generous in your estimate, or at least covering your assessments with a caveat or two. Otherwise you can wind up looking like a sap with no standards. Michael Ondaarie's latest novel, The English Patient, is worth the risk. There are books that change the shape of a literature. Each new book does in a way, of course, but with some you can feel the ground shift. Think of The Stone Angel or The Temptations of Big Bear or Lives of Girls and Women. The English Patient, I want to say, is such a book. It represents the work of an exceptionally gifted writer at the peak of his powers.
In the closing weeks of the Second World War, the lives of four people converge in what remains of the Villa San Girolamo in the hills north of Florence. One of these people is the English patient of the title, a man who fell burning from the sky, whose identity is lost, and who now lies "eternally dying" in this Tuscan villa. Another is Hana, a young woman from Toronto, who stayed behind to nurse the burned man when her medical colleagues departed. The third is Caravaggio, a friend of Hana's father who has sought her out. Caravaggio, an utterly charming thief and intriguer, has lost both his thumbs on account of one of his exploits. Finally there is Kirpal Singh, called Kip, a young Indian sapper who is one of those assigned to clearing Florence and its environs of mines and unexploded bombs.
It might be simplest to describe this as a love story, or perhaps a network of stories of different kinds of love, ranging from friendship through various degrees of passion. The overall structure of the book is circular and allusive, advancing, rounding back on itself, coming to endings that are not necessarily resolutions, and which may be connected to other starting points. The conclusion of the novel is fully realized and satisfying, without being "conclusive."
Within the swirls of this narrative, of course, more than love is circling. There are mysteries here, and suspense. The big mystery: who is the English patient? What is his story? But in fact the very shaping of the narrative provides a myriad of smaller mysteries. Ondaatje is a crafty writer; he often creates some acutely strange scene or image, the full meaning of which will be revealed only much later. Or he may "solve" the mystery as soon as it's been introduced. Take, for example, the opening lines of the book's eighth section, "The Holy Forest":
Kip walks out of the field where he has been digging, his left hand raised in front of him as if he has sprained it. He passes the scarecrow for Hana's garden, the crucifix with its hanging sardine cans, and moves uphill towards the villa. He cups the hand held in front of him with the other as if protecting the flame of a candle. Hana meets him on the terrace, and he takes her hand and holds it against his. The ladybird circling the nail on his small finger quickly crosses over onto her wrist.
Kip has just carried a ladybug to Hana. But because Ondaatje imbues this act with the magic of an unexplained ritual, because he makes the actors mime the scene, and finally because of the simple beauty of his prose, the reader cannot look away before the mystery is revealed. And Ondaatje can hook the reader as much with simplicity and clarity as with mystery. The book's penultimate section begins, irresistibly, "I promised to tell you how one falls in love." Suspense? In some ways the central informing metaphor of the novel is that of the unexploded bomb. On the literal level, Ondaatje achieves incredible tension and suspense by taking the reader through the steps of bomb defusing. Sometimes the bombs go off, sometimes they don't. The effect is that the reader is always holding his breath, waiting for the next explosion. The lives of the characters, too, are mined. There are pieces of their pasts and their futures waiting to blow up in their hands. And finally, the narrative itself is mined. The reader never knows which incident is going to be defused, which is going to explode. And because the narrative structure is circular and allusive, there are hints and foreshadowings of blasts to come. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that the reader learns that a particular bomb has - or hasn't gone off.
As always in Ondaatje's writings, there are images and scenes here that are as intensely vivid as they are unlikely, and at the same time wholly credible. While Caravaggio, naked, is searching for an incriminating camera in a darkened bedroom in which a German general and his mistress are engaged in sex, all three are suddenly illuminated in the gleam of passing headlamps like figures in a tableau vivant. In an earlier scene, the English patient, burned and blindfolded, is carried from gun to recovered gun by his Bedouin rescuers and made to name each by a kind of armoury Braille. On a larger scale, there is the spectre of a deserted Naples, scoured by Kip and his fellow sappers, waiting for a switch to be thrown to find out whether or not the city will explode.
Ondaatje writes like a man in love with the sounds of language. Consider the beginning of this list of winds of the desert:
There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arifi, also christened aref or rift, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
This is also, then, a book about the intersection of language and memory, about the overlapping of document and art. There are many references here to painters (it is no accident that one of the central characters should bear a painter's name) and to particular paintings and their survival in the ruins of post-war Italy There are also many instances of the interweaving of real life with books. Both Hana and her patient write their own thoughts and diaries in the margins of books. This is apt precisely because one of Ondaatje's great skills is the interweaving of documentary - including in this case his research into unexploded bombs and invention.
Ondaatje knows the secrets of the heart as well as he knows the secrets of his craft. Hana, Caravaggio, the English patient, and -perhaps above all - Kip are strong, vivid characters. Their longings and failures and loves and sorrows are deeply felt and credibly portrayed. Early in the book Caravaggio stands over Hana, who sits at the kitchen table, weeping: "The deepest sorrow, he thought. Where the only way to survive is to excavate everything." Ondaatje takes the reader to that place. It is a harrowing, beautiful journey.
The Cinnamon Peeler, published in 1991 in the United States and Britain, and now appearing in Canada for the first time, makes an interesting companion piece to the novel. It is a remarkable collection, whether read as an introduction to Ondaatje's poetry or as a reacquaintance. All but one of the poems published here appeared in his 1979 selected poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, or in the 1984 collection Secular Love. The British writer Graham Swift is quoted on the dust-jacket of The English Patient as saying that Ondaatje "defies the normal distinction between poet and novelist."
He's right, and the joys of one book are in many ways those of the other. While the rhythms of the prose may differ from those of the poetry, in both cases Ondaatje exhibits the rhythmic equivalent of perfect pitch:
Nowadays I listen only to duets.
Johnny Hodges and the Bean, a thin slip
of piano behind them
on this page on this stage
craft a breeze in a horn.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that in the poems Ondaatje gives freer rein to his slightly demented sense of humour, which flashes occasionally - but not so obviouslyin the novels. The extended example here is "Elimination Dance," a poem ("I still hesitate to call it a poem") that Ondaatje says is "based on those horrendous dances where a caller decides, seemingly randomly, who should not be allowed to continue dancing." Ondaatje's manic caller excludes, in turn, "Any person who has lost a urine sample in the mail ... .. Those who have accidentally stapled themselves," and "Anyone who has testified as a character witness for a dog in a court of law."
It is no doubt presumptuous to read these poems as fragments of autobiography. But 1 confess 1 did. And read thus, the collection has the shape of Shakespearean comedy. From early certainties and clarity of vision, through what reads like a kind of personal chaos and separation, into the development of a new love, new strength, and the affirmation of old friendships. After one gathering of old friends, the speaker says,
I do not know what to say
about this kind of love
but I refuse to lose it.
It's hard not to believe that Ondaatje, like Hana, has visited that sorrow where "the only way to survive is to excavate everything." Out of that sorrow, and love, and a prodigious gift, Ondaatje is fashioning works that are not only important books, but are also compulsive, exhilarating reading.