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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

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Plot Overview

Michael Ondaatje, poet, filmmaker, and editor, was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in September 1943. He moved to England with his mother in 1954, and then relocated to Canada in 1962, receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto and a master's degree from Queen's University in Kingston. Originally a poet, Ondaatje's eventual career in fiction was boosted by the success of his book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), an account of the factual and fictional life of the famous outlaw, for which Ondaatje won a Governor General's award. He won the coveted award again in 1979 for a second book of poetry entitled There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do.

In the 1980s, Ondaatje turned his attention to novels, publishing Running in the Family (1982) about his family's life in Ceylon, and In the Skin of the Lion (1987), which is set in 1930s Toronto. Ondaatje is perhaps best known, however, for The English Patient (1992), a novel set in World War II Italy. Ondaatje won a Booker Prize for the novel, and the 1996 film adaptation went on to win widespread critical acclaim and nine Academy Awards. Alongside his writing, Ondaatje has taught at York University in Toronto since 1971. He and his wife, Linda Spalding, make there home in Toronto, and together edit the literary journal Brick.

The English Patient is a work of historical fiction set in the hills of Tuscany during World War II. It intersperses the factual and the imaginary into a tale of tragedy and passion. Structurally, the novel resists chronological order, alternating between present action in the Italian villa and flashbacks to memories of a mysterious desert romance that is gradually revealed. The imagery is characterized by Ondaatje's "preoccupation with romantic exoticism and multiculturalism." Rather than offer a narrator telling a straightforward story, Ondaatje turns the romance into an unlikely mystery, revealing hidden facets of character and identity as the novel progresses. Ondaatje explores his characters by placing them in blank, secluded settings. Both the barren desert and the isolated Tuscan villa are insular and remote, enabling the author to study his characters intensely.

Innovative in narrative structure and complicated by numerous points of view, The English Patient resists easy classification into any particular literary genre. Yet Ondaatje uses the novel to renew themes that have been explored throughout the ages: national identity, the connection between body and mind, and love that transcends place and time. Perhaps most significant is the fact that Ondaatje blends the forms of prose and poetry, evoking images and emotions with highly lyrical language. His words translate "real experience into symbolic experience" by appealing to memories that involve all of the reader's senses. As Ondaatje once said in a radio interview, he uses his prose to "create a tactile landscape for his choreography." In The English Patient such a landscape augments the poetry and lyricism of the novel.

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