‘It’s the book that gave me freedom’: Michael Ondaatje on The English Patient

The novel has been translated into 38 languages and the film scooped nine Oscars. Now, as The English Patient wins the Golden Booker prize – voted readers’ favourite in 50 years – the author reveals why he could never have been a writer if he’d stayed in Britain On Sunday night, Michael Ondaatje stepped on to the wide stage of the Royal Festival Hall in London. He found a lectern and, white head bowed, reached into his pocket for a small piece of paper. “It began with a small night conversation between a burned patient and a nurse,” he said. “I did not know at first where it was taking place, or who the two characters were. I thought it might be a brief novella – all dialogue, European-style, big type.” The audience laughed. Because what actually turned up, of course, was The English Patient: 300-plus pages about four people inhabiting the mined rooms of a remote Italian villa at the end of the second world war; four very different people who meet in damaged solitude, who talk (there are a lot of night conversations), who love, whose histories, revealed in vivid flashes, become a taut, outraged meditation on the idea of war, of nationalism and of prejudice; a meditation that slips between spies and explorers, Suffolk and the Egyptian desert; the Punjab and Women’s College Hospital, Toronto, as easily as the sapper, Kip, slips into bomb craters to defuse bombs. Continue reading...

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