In high school I would read aloud to my friends during our lunch breaks, from my favorite books, the ones I have loved for so long their language has become mine, entire passages burned into my memory. I would carry them around, a stack of books, open them and read parts at random, return to my favorite chapters. The English Patient was one of these books. I have never loved anything else by Ondaatje save for this novel, although I have never found adultery romantic or compelling, but then the affair between the English Patient and the woman he loves is only one thread of the story. It is the language that I love most about this book, the words Ondaatje uses to describe the desert or an abandoned Italian garden, the gesture one person makes towards another, the delicate, swift dance of dismantling a bomb.
In those days I marked my favorite pages of my favorite books on a slip of paper and left them inside, the key to a code, the code of my heart and my mind; each marked page is criss-crossed with faintly pencilled lines. X marks the spot. Or a place in memory. I have not read this book for many years, so sliding between the pages now is like falling backwards into deep water. I remember now that I had always loved art but it was around that time I began to study art history, that back then I loved the dark chiaroscuro that characterizes the paintings of Caravaggio, who gives his name to a character in The English Patient, the former thief, one of the four damaged people whose stories intersect across time and place. (Besides Caravaggio there is Hana, the nurse, whose body had been in a war and, as in love, it had used every part of itself. There is Kip, the sapper, who moves through the ruins of war to dismantle mines and bombs left behind. And there is the English patient, whose memories of love and the desert are the spine of the story). I loved saying his name aloud, Car-a-vag-gio, drawing it out into a long, ragged caress.
She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water, says Almásy about the differences between himself and his lover, Katherine. It was not until I read these words that realized I have always felt this way. I have come to realize that all the writers I have loved most have affected the way I use language, the way I write, the way I think, perhaps even the way I speak.
This is the part I remember most (from Almásy's journal, which Hana comes across and reads to herself):
There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared to our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.
A love story is not about those who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing - not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. Vintage International, 1993. pp 81, 238, 97.