You can read an introduction and the opening chapter of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje here at the Barnes and Noble website.
Nearly all novel writing advice will tell you that the first pages of the novel have to orientate and hook the reader/agent/editor. They should provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY of the story, and ask sufficiently interesting questions to make them want to read on. This blog post tries to understand how Michael Ondaatje achieved this with his Booker prize winning novel The English Patient. I also want to identify any additional literary devices he uses to lure us into the world of the novel. I must admit I saw the film before I read the book and am still amazed at how slim the novel is while conveying such a complex story and cast of characters.
Before the opening line there is an epigraph, minutes from Geographical Society from 194- concerning the death and disappearance of Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton respectively during a 1939 desert expedition. This immediately alerts us to unusual and interesting events.
The first chapter is titled The Villa and begins:
‘She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. ..She crosses the loggia…’
The narrator is in no hurry here. No memorable first line. ‘A buckle of noise’ is interesting and cypresses and loggia along with ‘the villa’ of the chapter title suggests Italy and a storm approaching. We have our WHERE. The narrative is in the distant present tense.’She’ goes inside the villa and upstairs, into:
‘the room which is another garden-this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed his body exposed to the breeze…’
It all sounds peaceful and idyllic. The narrator then gives us some shocking exposition:
‘Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet…Above the shins the burns are worse. Beyond purple. Bone…She has nursed him for months…He is her despairing saint…’
Then back to the present
‘She pours calamine in strips across his chest…he loves the hollow below the lowest rib…She unskins the plum with her teeth…passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.’
There is an intimacy here but we are not sure of their relationship. The description of the plum is poignant and emphasises the delicacy of human skin and flesh.
‘He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse …into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.’
Another shock, the reader knows the patient’s (the protagonist’s) fate. The mystery now not his future but his past- how he got into the sorry state he is in and end up in an Italian villa with the young nurse? The novel has started at the end of the story and there is an expectation that we will travel back in time.
We are teased with his recollections.
‘There are stories the man recites quietly into the room…I have spent weeks in the desert…I fell burning into the desert. They found my body and made a boat of sticks and dragged me across the desert…Nomads you see Bedouin.I flew down and the sand itself caught fire…I had broken the spareness of the desert. They knew about planes that since 1939 had been falling out of the sky…Who are you? I don’t know…You said you were English.’
The English patient’s story, as told by him, is fractured and sparse, barely sentences and all the more evocative as the reader builds the story by filling the gaps between the beautiful phrases.
The WHO, the English patient, is a mystery, maybe even to himself. WHEN is revealed by the date he fell from the sky, we are in World War 2. A second WHERE places the patient in a North African desert and we are reminded of the epigraph. The WHAT and the WHY both relate to his past, what was he doing in North Africa at the start of the war? Why did he fall from the sky in flames?
Not much about the nurse has been revealed, except that she is young, capable and maybe in love with her patient. Neither do we know who else, if anyone, is in the villa.
The novel progresses with fractured narratives, the English patient’s and the nurses both in Italy and North Africa. Surprisingly, some parts of the book have very little dialogue for example during the many flashbacks. The first speech marks don’t occur until page 20.
All the questions that will take the length of the novel to answer have been set up in these first few pages despite of the fact that we know the fate of the English patient. There are still more irresistible characters to meet and a romance or two all set against the backdrop of the horrors of the war and the prose along the way is poetic but with a pace that covers a lot of story.