Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is one of the few books I have loved so much that I have read it three times in spite of all the other books out there waiting to be squeezed into the time and, more importantly, the headspace left over from my own writing. Once I told him so, at one of those legendary Waterstone's Deansgate readings, and I'm not sure what he thought - whether he was embarrassed or amused or believed me, but anyway I had to say it. It's the structure I find most beautiful - a structure so resonant with aching meanings - so I'm not a huge a fan of the film which alters it so radically.
So anyway, when Doug suggested this, Ondaatje's next novel, I had mixed feelings. Surely this too, would be great, but then surely no writer could ever come up with something so thrillingly resonant twice? In any case, I read it through the filter of the first.
The novel is set in the late eighties and early nineties in Sri Lanka, when government squads were hunting down and murdering antigovernment insurgents and separatist guerillas, and concerns the events which ensue when Anil, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka but having lived abroad for most of her adult life, returns to uncover on behalf of a human rights group the source of the organized campaigns of murder.
This book takes further Ondaatje's use of unusual structure to embody the themes, and this time the rationale is more overtly political. It is essentially episodic, moving from character to character and back and forth in time in a way which can seem baffling, but which people in the group quickly noted mimics both the processes of civil war in which people and meanings are scattered and the procedure of forensic archeology which must piece together seemingly disparate elements. Introducing the book, Doug began by saying that it is about Anil, although he said this rather uncertainly and we quickly agreed that it's not possible to talk about this book in such conventional terms, or appropriate to bring to it conventional expectations. While the beginning appears to focus on Anil - arriving in Sri Lanka, remembering a doomed love affair, and meeting Sarath, the Sri Lankan anthropolgist with whom she will work - by the end of the book the focus has shifted to Sarath. Indeed, it is significant that the first section is titled 'Sarath' and the title of the book does not refer to Anil herself but to her 'ghost'. Most people in the group took this last reference - the 'ghost' - to concern the skeleton on which Anil and Sarath work, but I thought it meant something much more significant: it is revealed some way into the novel that a 'ghost' is a Sri Lankan informer, and Anil does indeed have her 'informer' on the deepest level: someone who points out to her that she with her outsider's perspective is not only useless but potentially dangerous to those she purports to be working to help. As people noted, Anil has dropped out of the book's focus altogether by the end, and by creating such a major shift in perspective the structure of the book thus makes a deeply political statement. I had intended to ask the group why they thought certain sections of the book were in italics, notably Anil's memories of her work life, but I forgot and it wasn't discussed. I think now that it's another authorial device to distance and parenthesize Anil's perspective and illustrate its impotence.
Nearly everyone thought this was an immensely clever book, and nearly everyone seemed to agree that it was moving (although it struck me that they said it without seeming particularly moved). Doug said he had found it very vivid - both in terms of the depiction of the scenery and atmosphere and in terms of the character depiction, although there were some things he couldn't quite get to grips with, like the point of Anil's memories of her affair and of her friendship with another, female colleague with whom she has now also lost touch. Clare said she thought that the point of these last were that they illustrated that people never really made lasting connections because they never really knew each other, another instance of Anil's impotence and alienation.
All of this praise had rendered John completely silent, as he had been unable to engage with the novel at all, and I now said that in spite of everything I admired about the book, my experience had been rather similar: unlike others I hadn't been moved by the book since I hadn't found the characters ever came to emotional life. Jenny suggested that that was deliberate authorial strategy, a replication of the repression of people living under such regimes - which is probably true, but sadly means for me that the novel's devices were too successful, and deprived it of the resonance I'd found in The English Patient.
Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.