miércoles, 8 de febrero de 2012

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

When a book has won the Booker Prize and the film that it spawned has taken Oscars, the casual reviewer might be tempted to conclude that everything has already been said on its subject. Having just revisited the film after several years of absence, I decided to re-read the book. I don’t remember how many times I have read it now: let’s call it several. I have seen the film at least six times.

First let it be said that the film, The English Patient, claims only to be based on Michael Ondaatje’s book. It is a film from the book, not of the book. The distinction is crucial because, despite the film’s admirable attempt to recreate the complexity of part of the novel, the book always went much further.

In the book we have characters who have been scarred by war, by a war that none of them particularly wanted to fight. I suppose there are occasional wars where some of the participants want to be active. But here Caravaggio just wanted to stay a thief and thus keep his thumbs. And who would take over thieving if he is drafted to fight? Perhaps Hana’s father really did intend to see out the conflict and restart his previous life. Perhaps the English Patient, himself, did really want to be English. I doubt it. Or perhaps the idea, that of nationality, given war, was mere irrelevance. It was sides that people counted. He certainly had much to hide, but from whom? What does it matter what side you claim to be on when it is only ever the innocent who fall victim? This last point is crucial to the feelings of Kip, the character who only just makes it into the film.

For in the book this Sikh sapper, this bomb disposal specialist, who risks his own life to protect others, is a complex anti-colonial thinker. He has a sense of justice that transcends victory, especially when that victory is won at tremendous cost in the lives of those who did not fight. This aspect the film makers largely ignored. His character became a suspiciously like an aspect of the noble savage that remains gratefully unthreatening to colonialism. In the book his standpoint is far more radical than this.

And as far as Almasy is concerned, if that really was his name, he eventually worked for those people who would accept him at face value, without a racism that was suspected. On the other hand, he was Hungarian, and in that war the nation was sympathetic to fascism. So did he merely support his own country’s line? Whom would you believe? Whose motives are honest?

Almasy’s love for the wife of a British war-monger was undoubtedly sincere, but at the same time obsessive. Might it have burned out if given the freedom to flame? And did Katharine know of her husband’s contribution to war? If not, who was betrayed? In the film it is unclear that it took Almasy three years to return to the Cave of the Swimmers, and also spent much of the intervening time doing significantly more than merely handing over maps. Such is life in war. In film, it’s the gloss that counts.

In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s book, we are never clear about motives. These change whilst apparently remaining both consistent and sincere, despite remaining unknown, often unstated. There is continued life after the conflict ends, albeit utterly transformed, still dangerous, and then there is death which, for some seems the preferable option. There are principles, and these are largely underpinned by pragmatism. Above all there are actions and reactions. Ask any fuse. It might just blow you away from what you are. Light the blue touch-paper and stand back, well back.

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