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BOOK REVIEW / The villa of the peace: The English patient - Michael Ondaatje: Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

Edmund White
Saturday 19 September 1992 23:02 BST

MICHAEL ONDAATJE has invented a way of writing a novel that approximates the mind's habit of coming back again and again to the same moments of ecstasy, shame, peril or slipped meanings. Robbe-Grillet pointed the way towards this form in Jealousy, but in a much more austere and impersonal style.

Like coral, Ondaatje's narrative is built up slowly into towers and branches and hidden chambers, fashioning a delicate grisaille of memory and passion. The form isn't stridently avant-garde but rather radically experimental in the way that Bonnard, the chronicler of bourgeois bliss, is experimental - skewing dimension, masking figures, proceeding from icon to icon. Typically, Ondaatje ends a chapter not with an event but with a memory, an odour, a picture.

The action takes place mostly in an Italian villa in the days just after the end of the Second World War. A young Canadian woman, Hana, is nursing back to life a badly burned patient, who may be an English explorer of the desert or a Hungarian spy. A Canadian friend, a thief turned spy, improbably named Caravaggio, joins them in the abandoned villa (Hana and Caravaggio are characters in Ondaatje's earlier novel In the Skin of the Lion). The final member of this unlikely group is an Indian sapper, a Sikh nicknamed 'Kip'. In parallel time-lines Hana lives out a powerful sexual and romantic rapport with Kip, while the English Patient, launched by morphine into a sea of memories, recalls his passion for Katherine Clifton, a married woman he met before the war.

Sometimes feminists complain that male writers are incorrigible. But Ondaatje's response to the insights of feminism becomes obvious if one compares The English Patient to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which it superficially resembles: female nurse, male patient, post-war Italy. In Hemingway's novel, the narrator constantly interrupts Catherine's statements with what were probably meant to be affectionate remarks ('You're a lovely girl' or 'You're a fine simple girl') but which now read as patronising belittlement. Ondaatje's men, by contrast, are alive to Hana's or Katherine's variety, and to the complexity of their own responses to these women.

If feminism lies behind the book, it's also true that it is not a schematic or didactic novel. Ideas about gender, war, race and colonialism have their impact on the characters, but are refracted through the specifics of situation. When Kip learns of Hiroshima, he abandons his white friends; as an Indian, he knows that such a bomb would never have been dropped on a white nation. But this break does not preclude Kip's tenderness in the closing pages, and he is experienced by the reader, as by Hana, less in racial terms than as 'half bird - a quality of feather within him, the cold iron at his wrist. He moves sleepily whenever he is in such darkness with her, not quick quick as the world, whereas in daylight he glides through all that is random around him, the way colour glides against colour.'

This is not the poetic prose of false sentiment and highfalutin' diction, rather the true lyricism of fact, myth and tragic vision. Sometimes the metaphors are very simple ('He leaned against the corner of the vestibule like a spear'). There are passages about the desert worthy of Arabia Deserta, passages about defusing a bomb worthy of a professional treatise. The running narrative tone has a majestic, almost Biblical cadence to it, but one that can assimilate all the details of modern life, from air pillows to land mines.

Many books - The Bible, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Kim - work their way into the texture of The English Patient, along with pop songs and poetry. Hana writes her thoughts about Caravaggio on a blank page in The Last of the Mohicans; the English Patient pastes new pages, covered with his own writing, into his battered Herodotus; he falls in love with Katherine in a mechanism drawn directly from Stendhal's theory of love 'crystallisation'.

This is the best piece of fiction in English I've read in several years, idiosyncratic but sturdy, and throbbing with emotion and humanity.

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