Imagine you are in a small theater, watching a play. The lights are all trained on the stage and you are close enough to see the people whose dramatic lives unfold under your curious eyes. You see a room, four people, a bed on which a man lies down, eyes half closed, telling a story. His body burned black in places, his thin frame fits the bed so well it seems he is molded into it. The other three are listening as if under a spell, because they all want to know who he is. He is the one keeping them together.
The nurse, Hana, young and marked by the tragedies of war, by death and grief and loneliness; the thief Caravaggio, who came because he knew Hana’s father and now she is his only connection with a world he was once a part of; and Kip, the young sapper in the British army, whose life can end with every minute he spends deactivating the mines the enemies left behind. And him, the burned man, the one they all call the English patient, for want of another name.
The setting is a villa in Italy, a place that was once a nunnery, a hospital and then a German defence and now it’s both a refuge and a trap, for within its rooms are hidden mines that can go off at a wrong move. Mines left behind not long ago by the enemy, fighting in the World War II.
Here time is not measured in hours but in the books Hana reads to the burned man, in the ampoules of morphine she administers him for the pain, in the stories that he tells.
There is nothing left for him now but to tell them his story. How he lived in the desert, fell in love, and wandered for years carrying a book in which he kept maps, drawing, clippings of various kinds, personal notes.
The action is fragmented and elusive. Just when you think the mystery starts to unravel, the lights on the stage go off and then a single ray of light appears, trained on a different person. The people on the stage are surrounded by the stories of sand. The Englishman’s tales carry them into the desert, into another life, and they listen, hoping to find a clue to the man’s identity. Has he really forgotten who he is? How come he can remember so much but not his name?
Reading this book was not easy. There are small fragments like miniature gems in their perfection: the eating of a plum, a voice reading poetry in the desert, a caterpillar moving on someone’s cheek, a breath of a sleeping person. It is one of those books that need to be read at least twice and with each time, perhaps, find another clue, another piece in the great puzzle that is the English patient.
P.S. I read the book in about a week, not because of lack of time but because of the unfamiliar and sometimes difficult style. One of the reasons I read it is because I wanted to watch the 1996 movie, starring Ralph Fiennes, and I didn’t want to do that without having read the book first.