The “English Patient,” suffering from burns over most of his body is recovering in a partially bombed out and abandoned Italian monastery. A Canadian nurse takes care of him, reading his copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, his only remaining possession, aloud to him. In the process, the patient gradually regains memories of his desert exploration years before, when he had an affair with the wife of an expedition member. The reader gradually learns he is László Almásy, a Hungarian aristocrat who acquired a native-like English accent from attending a British school in childhood.
The historical Almásy, on which Ondaatje basis the patient, served in the Austro-Hungarian military in WWI, charted much of the North African desert in the inter-war period, and was later recruited for Germany in WWII. In the novel, at least, he uses his unique knowledge of the desert to guide German spies through the desert—a feat the enemy finds nearly impossible to trace, due in part to numerous sandstorms. As a linguist, I’m intrigued by Almásy’s discovery (not mentioned in the novel) of the Magyarab tribe, descendants of 16th-century Hungarian soldiers serving in the Ottoman Empire and their Nubian wives. They now speak Arabic, but their name is derived from the ethnonym Magyar, meaning “Hungarian.” Contrary to this work of fiction, Almásy was apparently a gay man.
For the most part, Ondaatje moves easily between one time frame and the next in presenting Almásy’s gradual recollections of his past—and the others’ discoveries of it, particularly as he blabs under the influence of morphine. I still found the author was sometimes inconsistent in tense shifts as he moved from present scene to flashback and returned to the present.
But the novel more than compensates for such moments of confusion with its vivid characters. Hana has an affair with a Sikh British sapper, who also takes up temporary residence in the building. He apparently finds his “flow” in defusing bombs; he can’t get enough of the challenge. He’s a useful person to have around, given the ubiquity of bombs left by retreating Germans—nurse Hana can’t even play the piano for fear it’s booby trapped. The fourth main character is the thief, an Italian-Canadian man who gets his thumbs cut off when he’s caught spying for the Allies. Some of the portions told from his point of view are among the most insightful of the book.
It’s a great read, combining romance, edgy realism, and story-telling craft.