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Michael Ondaatje after winning the Golden Man Booker Prize for his ‘The English Patient’ at The Royal Festival Hall, London, on 8 July. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Ondaatje after winning the Golden Man Booker Prize for his ‘The English Patient’ at The Royal Festival Hall, London, on 8 July. Photo: Getty Images

‘The English Patient’: Love in times of war

Michael Ondaatje's 'The English Patient' has been judged the best work of fiction in half a century. Here's why the book, and movie, continue to endure

Bengaluru: It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) got the popular vote as the best novel to have won the Man Booker Prize in the last 50 years of its existence. None of the other books on the shortlist of the ‘Golden Booker’, each picked from a decade of winners, has as much public recall as Ondaatje’s. That’s perhaps due to its movie adaption in 1996, featuring Ralph Fiennes in the title role, along with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Juliette Binoche, among others. Directed by Anthony Minghella, it went on to earn a dozen Oscar nominations, and won nine, including the Best Picture, eventually.

The only other novel in the shortlist which comes anywhere close to The English Patient’s mass appeal is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), a historical thriller, which, belying all expectations, led to a Booker-winning sequel in Bring Up The Bodies (2012). The rest of the draw—V.S. Naipaul’s In A Free State (1971), Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987) and George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo (2017)—had their moment among critics and connoisseurs of literary fiction, but didn’t break out like these books did.

Is there a message, then, in The English Patient’s staggering victory?

The Booker sweepstakes

An exercise in singling out one book from the 52 that have won the Booker over the last five decades is bound to be tricky, if not furiously debatable, dictated by the individual tastes of the jury involved in selecting the shortlist. But a literary prize, like literary publishing, is an expression of personal prejudice: judges will differ on the relative merit of one book over another. It beggars belief, for instance, that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), chosen twice as the best among Booker winners for the prize’s 25th and 40th anniversaries, didn’t even make the shortlist. Cynics can’t be blamed either for scoffing at the Booker’s periodic spawning of sub-prizes to mark its various anniversaries. But if ‘gimmickry’, or what you will, helps revive public interest in literature, why should anyone complain?

The popular success of The English Patient, however, pre-dated its glamorous afterlife in cinema. Until its publication, the 74-year-old Sri-Lanka born Canadian Ondaatje, who is of Dutch-Tamil-Singhalese descent, was best known as the author of several volumes of poetry. He had written a couple of books of prose, most memorably Coming Through Slaughter (1976), a novel about the golden age of jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the century. But The English Patient became his passport to the literary eminence, winning the prestigious Booker Prize and selling millions of copies over the years.

But not before a neck-to-neck contest, which saw it share the Booker with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. So divided were judges in 1992 that the chairperson of the jury, Victoria Gledinning, remembered calling a fellow panellist “a condescending bastard" during the final meeting, when every book had “one passionate supporter and one furious antagonist". The prize, though, proved to be a decisive moment in Ondaatje’s career, freeing him, as he admitted after winning the Golden Booker, from the demands of a day job.

The Indian connection

Between 1985 and 1992, as Ondaatje worked on the book, his adopted country, Canada, saw a sharp rise in militant nationalism and a concomitant aggression towards immigrant communities, especially the Sikhs. It’s not a coincidence that one of the four key characters in The English Patient is Kip, short for Kirpal Singh, a Sikh sapper bomb disposal expert working with the British military during World War II. Kip’s disenchantment with the white West, as the nuclear bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, amplifies the novel’s major theme: the ironic power of geopolitics to bring people from diverse nations closer, as also to sever them ruthlessly.

Known for his interest in the world wars, the workings of memory, and the experience of history as mediated through situations of intense, often tragic, drama, Ondaatje is a master storyteller, but also invested in the intricacies of structure and style. Examples of his complexity are to be found in Running In The Family (1982), a semi-fictional account of his childhood in Sri Lanka, and more recently, in Warlight (2018), a novel set in the aftermath of World War II, in which a family is torn by lies and half-truths.

The movie

In The English Patient, too, Ondaatje’s canvas is audacious, involving mistaken identities, infidelity, guilt and reparation, where the personal stories of the characters illuminate the big questions . With its fourfold points of narration and frequent flashbacks, the novel is not always elegantly plotted. It’s easier perhaps to get into it having watched the movie, which imposes, for reasons of format, more structural tidiness to what is otherwise a sprawling story. Even so, when the renowned film critic Robert Ebert first watched the movie, he was struck by its rugged poetic beauty. “It’s the kind of movie you can see twice," he wrote, “first for the questions, the second time for the answers."

Ondaatje himself admitted the flaws in The English Patient while reacting to the announcement of the Golden Booker. “Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list, especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul, one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall," he is quoted by The Guardian. “I suspect and know more than anyone that perhaps The English Patient is still cloudy, with errors in pacing."

In spite of his characteristic humility, there is a grain of truth in Ondaatje’s admission, which may leave some wondering if it was indeed the memory of the film that ultimately lead so many to vote in favour of The English Patient. Writer Kamila Shamsie, who picked it out of the 1990s for the shortlist, put such speculations to rest. “A lot of people when they’re reading the book are probably imagining Ralph Fiennes... and that doesn’t hurt anything," she said, bestowing on it the epithet “transformative".

Faiza Khan, publisher of Bloomsbury India, which distributes the book in India, adds, “I’m sure Minghella’s adaptation sweeping the Oscars did no harm to public recall but I don’t believe that was the deciding factor. Wolf Hall, for example, exists vividly in the public imagination." People seem to “remember and connect most deeply with books in which they care about the characters," Khan says, “And in the case of The English Patient, when you can make people care about them in virtuosic prose style."

The crossover format

Over the last decade, there is a growing lament for the decline of literary fiction. The genre seems to feature ever sparsely in publishers’ catalogues and its writers are discouraged by the advances offered to them or the publicity budgets allocated to their books—or, worse still, are snubbed with outright rejections. Yet, as the enduring success of a book like The English Patient (or Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel Sacred Games, newly adapted as a Netflix series) shows, the hunger for a good story, vivid characters and compelling plot lines, is very much alive—both on the page and on the screen. One of the biggest recent hits in English-language publishing worldwide, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (2017), has not only sold over 300,000 copies as of May, but was also optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, last year for movie rights.

In the spirit of the times, literary publishing seems to be inching emphatically towards a ‘crossover’ format that steers away from avant-garde experiments for a mode that privileges story-telling and mines complexity out of seemingly simple plots. Will a potential movie tie-in or screen adaptation soon become the new normal of success for literary fiction?

“Sometimes we make too much of a fuss about labels. There are literary books that are huge commercial successes, and others that are more difficult—both to read and to sell," says Diya Kar of HarperCollins Publishers India . “Those lines are increasingly blurring, and new ways of packaging and selling books through web, TV, film adaptations and new reading platforms are making the ‘literary’ more accessible."

The English Patient’s revival, at this cultural moment when the traffic between the page and the screen is becoming more fluid, may perhaps give a second wind to literary publishing.

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