First published in 1981, the story of Sonia O. continues to touch readers.

Photo: Tero Honkaniemi

Those close to me know that I always carry a copy of The English Patient with me, and I mean always. The original version, at the very least, accompanies me on longer journeys in my purse or backpack or rolled up in my pocket. In most cases, I also take the Finnish and French translations with me. At home, I always have the book at hand on a desk or a nightstand or the bookshelf in the dining room, and often also on the shampoo shelf in the bathroom.

Whenever a copy falls apart, I buy a new one. In fact, I have more than thirty copies, spare copies, and spare copies of spare copies on my bookshelves. I continually add to my collection in bookstores around the world. Most often, I buy secondhand, because I find used books particularly fascinating: the pages have softened and may have underlines, sidelines, exclamation marks, or stars drawn by another devout “patient” of whatever nationality, or food stains, tearstains, or rumpled patches from reading the book in the bath.

One of my best finds is a golden-covered copy that looks brand new. I got it in Chania, Greece, at the excellent flea market where I had bought half a dozen copies earlier. The English owners are well aware of my habit. They stash any new copies under the counter and present them to me when I appear in Chania again.

I have read everything Michael Ondaatje has published. He is a divinely gifted artist with words. A magician of language. An aficionado of sentences. He writes prose poetry, poetic prose. Dew, honey, sap. A dash of snake venom.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT was published in 1992 and won the Booker Prize in that same year. As soon as I heard of the book, I had to buy it. I have always been a great fan of the Sahara, and I have always loved to read stories about nomads and cartographers, explorers of winds and scents, restless heroes who defy natural phenomena as well as social transitions in their thirst for knowledge and experiences.

The book has rendered me a Cretan patient, a chronic one. Many have asked me what the secret of The English Patient is. Hmm, is it a diagnosis you want?

The book is warm, gentle, and very wise. It breathes a joy of storytelling, a power of senses, an impressive body of knowledge, and true wisdom of the heart. Of course, if you are after a more categorical and perhaps more clinical answer, The English Patient is also a social novel, a war novel, and a love story. The book portrays a search for the lost oasis of Zerzura, the meaning of life, the core of being human, and great love. And more: the work is filled with passion, the Sahara, history, wadis, oases, acacia ashes. And the language!

The protagonist is a mysterious man who falls from the sky, burning, after a plane crash. Hana, a nurse who has lost her boyfriend in the war, takes care of this dying patient in a severely damaged Italian villa shortly before the end of World War II. The patient, Count Ladislaus de Almásy, tells the nurse stories about his life, his love affair with Katharine Clifton, and his colleagues, researchers who pursued their lifework in the Sahara.

Citing Herodotus, the patient tells the young nurse about the writing of history, the birth and destruction of cultures, desert peoples, maps, and uncharted territories. The book also tells the peripheral stories of a charming thief named David Caravaggio, a sapper named Kip Singh, and many others in the maelstrom of war.

Ondaatje’s way of describing his characters is beautiful, tolerant, oblique, and I would also say inexplicable. All individuals have their lights and shadows, their mysteries, and their secrets, and everyone has a Destiny.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT has been made into a motion picture, directed by Anthony Minghella in 1996. Unusually and fortunately enough, this interpretation of the book works. Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Willem Dafoe are excellent in their roles. I have seen the movie dozens of times—and I tend to make our guests watch it in the early hours of the morning.

How many times have I read The English Patient? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand times? It does not matter. Each time, I discover new thoughts, new metaphors, new landscapes. Each time, I see Count Almásy, Hana, Katharine, Caravaggio, and Kip through slightly different eyes, discerning features that escaped me earlier. Each time, I sense intimations of something new.

By Anja Snellman

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For a list of all articles, go to the main page of the News section.  For a list of journal articles by Anja Snellman, visit the main page of the Journal section.

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