THE ENGLISH PATIENT
Canadian poet/novelist Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion, 1987, etc.) assembles, mosaic-fashion, the lives of four occupants of an Italian villa near Florence at the end of WW II. The war-damaged villa, its grounds strewn with mines, has gone from to German stronghold to Allied hospital, its sole occupants now a young Canadian nurse, Hana, and her last patient, a born victim. They are joined by David Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian friend of Hana's father but also a thief used by Western intelligence, and Kip (Kirpal Singh), an Indian sapper in the British Army. So: a dying man and two wrecks--for David has become a morphine addict after his recent capture and torture, while Hana, who coped with the loss of her soldier sweetheart and their child (aborted), has been undone by news of her father's death. Only Kip is functioning efficiently, defusing the mines. Ondaatje superimposes on this tableau the landscape of the pre-war North African desert, with its strange brotherhood of Western explorers, filtered through the consciousness of Harm's patient. Though he claims to have forgotten his identity during the fiery fall from his plane into the desert, it seems the putative Englishman is the Hungarian explorer (and sometime German spy) Almasy, but such puzzles count for less than his erudition (his beloved Herodotus is the novel's presiding spirit), his internationalism ("Erase nations!"), and his doomed but incandescent love affair with the bride of an English explorer--an affair ignited by the desert and Herodotus, and a dramatic contrast to the "formal celibacy" of the love developing at the villa between Hana and Kip, which ends (crudely) when Kip learns of the Hiroshima bombing, discovers his racial identity, and quits the white man's war. A challenging, disorienting, periodically captivating journey without maps, best when least showy, as in the marvelous account of Kip's adoption by an eccentric English peer, his bomb-disposal instructor.