Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Sri Lanka. In 1954, he moved to England and then to Canada in 1962. He studied at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University, Ontario and went on to teach at York University, Toronto.
He first achieved literary success as a poet with works such as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981) and The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989). He has since come to be regarded as a novelist most notably with the fame achieved with the welcome critical reception of his fourth novel, The English Patient (1992). This was a joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1992, along with The Sacred Hunger (1992) by Barry Unsworth, and was adapted for film in 1996. He has also written a memoir, which is entitled Running i
1. Analyse the structure of the narrative and note how there is a movement between the past and present. How does this style affect the content?
The effects of the Second World War are a central thematic concern of this novel and this is explained both in the content and in the way it is structured. The main characters have been damaged psychologically and physically by the war and Hana and Caravaggio in particular are seen to have been left in a state of calm after the storm as they recuperate from what has happened. By avoiding exposition, that is, by not explaining coherently the background of each of the main characters, the readers are left to assemble them piece by piece. In this way, the often fragmented narratives are used to highlight how fragmented the stories of these people are.
The novel also moves between the past and present and back again intermittently and this has the effect of disrupting the continuum of the present. Just as memories are impossible to avoid or repress, the past continues to resurface here. Hana makes a concerted effort to only live in the present and, consequently, little is given about her background before the war.
2. Consider the literary nature of this work and how books are made integral to the narrative.
It is explained that Hana has come to regard reading as her only form of pleasure or refuge (particularly before the arrival of Kip). Books become, then, her salvation and are also the means of expressing her isolation. It is telling, for example, that she is compared to Robinson Crusoe.
Other works are also used to speak for the novel, as with Kim by Rudyard Kipling and The Histories by Herodotus. The references to Kim are of particular significance as this bolsters the narrative’s preoccupation with English Imperialism. However, when Hana comes to see herself as Kim and Kip as Creighton the possibilities of challenging categories and stereotypes is suggested.
3. Consider the way the patient’s identity is held back from the readers.
By referring to the patient as the English patient, and then gradually revealing that this man is Almásy (who worked as a ‘spy helper’ for German Intelligence), the readers’ suppositions are challenged and an element of mystery is added.
This challenge to preconceptions is enhanced when Hana and later Caravaggio decide that the patient’s true identity is no longer of importance and they avoid condemning him for the part he played in the war. By refusing to condemn him, the past is allowed to remain in the past and some reconciliation with the enemy is given.
4. Explain the relationship between map-making, nationality and war as depicted in this novel.
The patient refers to himself (and Kip) as an ‘international bastard’ and through him we are also invited to question the dangerous nature of nation-building.
It is of interest that this point is raised by one who has worked for German intelligence, and so did have a vested interest at least for a time in the concept of nations and nationality. His unreliability as a narrator should not be overlooked, of course, but his point about the destructiveness that follows the construction of nations is one that bears recognition.
The patient also represents the intellectuals who acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but this is then used in negative ways. This use of knowledge for the purposes of destruction is recorded most poignantly in the references to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 5. Outline the ways this novel criticizes the British Empire, and how it questions the deadly influence of Englishness.
It is through the characterization of Kip and the references to the racist treatment he receives in England that the narrative introduces a critique of Englishness and the British Empire.
This introduction leads us to the final disillusionment he experiences with the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and to when he turns away from the army he has served throughout the war. It is telling that when he leaves he chooses to head south in the opposite direction he came in when he was a part of the invasion. This movement highlights all the more how he has turned away from the values and beliefs that he has followed to the point that he repeatedly risked his life.
Englishness is seen finally, then, to represent a form of hypocrisy as Kip served in the war through loyalty and for equality. With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he, like Caravaggio, recognized this as an attack on the people of Asia by the Americans and the English.
n the Family (1983).
Of his other work, Coming Through Slaughter (1976) is a fictionalised biography of Buddy Bolden, and, therefore, plays with the boundaries of fact and fiction. Anil’s Ghost (2000) is the follow-up to The English Patient and is set in Sri Lanka. The more recent Divisadero (2007) is set in France and California. He and his wife, the novelist Linda Spalding, are also two of the editors of the literary journal Brick.