BOOK REVIEW / Memories of bombshells in a Florentine villa: 'The English Patient' - Michael Ondaatje: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
IF The English Patient had arrived out of nowhere, it would have been easy to pronounce it a distinctive and polished work. Intriguing reflections on war and peace, love and empire are strained into a prose of studied delicacy. That's more than you can say for most books. Perhaps we should simply leave it at that.

But Michael Ondaatje now finds himself the short-odds favourite to win the Booker Prize. It shouldn't really make the slightest difference - of course not. But the map of critical attack, damn it, has been suddenly and alarmingly redrawn. Instead of keeping our eye out for unexpected pleasures, we start wondering what all the fuss is about. Possibly we come with a full collection of well-trained hobbyhorses and a fresh willingness to find fault. Let's just see, the word goes, if this character is as hot as he's cracked up to be. Let's just poke around, see if we can't take him down a peg.

The English Patient ignites immediately: a burnt and blackened pilot lies in a Florentine villa recently abandoned by retreating German troops. He is nursed by a Canadian woman whose needs, cramped and twisted by the savageries of war, mesh perfectly with his own. All she knows is that he's English, and that he fills his precious copy of Herodotus's Histories with jottings and quotations from Kipling and Stendhal. She thinks he is a saint, a 'despairing Saint'.

But who the heck is he? It's a burning question, yet Ondaatje is in no hurry. Indeed he tests our patience by sliding into the past, filling the text with a whispering cadence but depriving it of much forward momentum. We are dragged back through an alienating series of pluperfect tenses into the nurse's childhood; and beckoned into the pilot's morphine-enhanced dreams of desert exploration and forbidden romance.

All these nostalgic glances are sculpted with immense care, but they leave us feeling a little like sun-struck travellers on a guided tour of the monuments. We circle the villa, listening to old stories about what happened to the people who live inside, on the lookout for something we might be able to eat. But when real food arrives, when the patient's identity at last emerges - he turns out not to be English at all - it comes dissolved in one of those who- cares-the-war's-over moods.

The patient and the nurse are joined by a friendly spy called Caravaggio and a quiet Sikh bomb-disposal expert called Kirpal Singh. His experiences as an obedient Indian sapper in the British Army (he disarms enemy bombs, but no one will talk to him) embody most of what the book wants to say about the ethics of empire. And it is to him that the novel turns for its climax, when he hears, over his crystal radio set, news of the catastrophe that has befallen Hiroshima. The nurse watches him from the villa:

'He is a hundred yards away from her in the lower field when she hears a scream emerge from his body which had never raised its voice among them. He sinks to his knees, as if unbuckled. Stays like that and then slowly gets up and moves in a diagonal towards his tent, enters it, and closes the flap behind him.'

Ondaatje's prose is 'poetic', meaning that it has a rather touching, decorous stiffness, and makes quite a point of choosing its words carefully (as if no one but a poet would think of such a thing). But sometimes, as here, it is almost too determined to be elliptical. This is, after all, only a man screaming - a conventional enough response to a shock like that. We can't help noticing a slightly fussy self-consciousness, as if nothing can be allowed to ruffle the tone of rarefied discrimination. The book refuses, apart from a few choice swear words, to surrender to anything like bad taste or excess; it takes the trouble to discuss the poetry of desert winds, but declines to be remotely breezy itself; and because nearly everything in the book has already happened by the time we join it, there are not many surprises.

As a result, the violence and the danger seem almost notional. Defusing his bombs, Kirpal Singh is a man in a purely technical trance, engaged in a teasing but hardly explosive tug of war with 'the personality that had laid the city of threads and then poured wet concrete over it'. The episodes in which his hands stroke the tangle of wires and fuses are rather wonderful, and make one eager to read Major A B Hartley's Unexploded Bomb, which Ondaatje acknowledges as an 'especially useful' source. But the detonators have been carefully removed. These are memories: we know Kip's not going to have his arm blown off.

The spirit of Kipling hovers overhead. His name shelters inside Kirpal Singh's, and the sapper is known as 'Kip' - after Kim, which the scorched patient quotes. The beginning of Kim describes a great gun, the Zam-Zammah cannon, made from metal cups and bowls taken from Hindu households in Lahore. Kip's vocation is to suck the poison from monsters such as this, to turn swords back into ploughshares.

If Kipling, the chronicler of imperial awkwardness, is the presiding spirit, then the controlling metaphor is the desert. It looms large in the stories of the English patient - who was at one time involved in Saharan exploration - as a sea of constantly shifting sand, an infinity of grains big enough and old enough to bury civilisations. The ageless, shifting dunes provide The English Patient with an appealing elegiac atmosphere, but it is an atmosphere we can recognise all too easily. The novel is 'poetic' in that it satisfies a common and undemanding expectation for poetry as something oblique, glancing and lyrical, something gilded o'er and pale and silver'd and all that.

Is this all that poetry is? The persistent striking of the same querulous and sensitive note? In the English Patient, the preoccupation with tone snuffs out as much as it illuminates. Thunderous incidents come out as muted screams. Luckily, we can count on the judges to sort it out.