This taut, somber novel, the fourth by the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, is about eccentric passions, and the eccentric passions are about deserts, theft, bomb mechanisms, and other people with eccentric passions. The English Patient was a cowinner with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger of Britain’s highest literary award, the Booker Prize, and it would also deserve to win the Herodotus Prize for Farfetched but Enchanting Stories, if only there were a prize named after the Greek historian who is quoted throughout the book.
Ondaatje is one of those writers who prefer to make their characters reveal themselves through ordeals, not ordinary life. One of the four characters he places in a bomb-ruined Italian villa at the end of World War II has been burned beyond recognition, left with only his English-accented voice and his stark stories of the North African desert where his plane crashed. Another, a 20-year-old Canadian nurse named Hana, has been numbed by caring for dying men but has found a new vocation in her devotion to ”the English patient.” The third has been given the name of the 16th-century Italian painter who used thieves and prostitutes as models for his paintings of sacred subjects. This Caravaggio is a Canadian. He had been a thief before the war. He has spent the war in the same profane profession, stealing for the sacred Allied cause. The fourth character is Kirpal Singh, or Kip, an Indian who joined the British army and was trained as a sapper, an expert in disassembling the unexploded bombs that litter England and Italy. He is therefore in constant danger of being blown to bits.
Nothing so explosive happens. Caravaggio admits he’s in love with Hana. She develops a delicate passion for Kip. But the life of the book is in the desert, where the burned man had been an explorer before the war and where he had fallen into a destructive affair with the wife of a colleague. His stories aren’t entirely believable, but they become compelling because the desert comes through with its oases and mysteries intact. The novel finally succeeds as a celebration of the solitude to be found in deserts, dangerous machines, and unrequited love, and as a celebration of the impassioned individuality that seeks such solitude. B+