Refuse to be Passive

It Takes Time- The Secret to Reading “The English Patient”

In Art, Life in General on November 28, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Have you ever had a book that you’ve been reading against a deadline and you feel like your slogging through it? I’ve had my fair share of those books, and one of them I’m reading again, for a third time. This is my third time through Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” and it will be the first time I actually finish it. I think last time I was 30 pages short. Sad, I know. This time is different than the last two times though. This time, I am enjoying it. And the secret to enjoying it is actually found within the book itself, in reference to another novel. In one of the Chapter’s, Hana is reading to The English Patient from “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling. Those of you who don’t know the story will know the Disney spin off of “The Jungle Book.” I’ve never read “Kim” but it’s now on my reading list. But within a conversation regarding this book, is the secret to reading “The English Patient.”
“Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page alot, I believe….Think about the speed of his pen. When an appaling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise.” (Ondaatje, 94).
You must read Ondaatje slowly. His first love is poetry and you can see it in his writing. There is no push to follow plot, no desire to canter through the novel. Rather, there is careful thought, an acknowledgment that life, unlike the movies our culture puts before us, is not all based on action. Much of it is based on thought, memory, and verbal interacitons with others. To read “The English Patient” quickly, is to lose much of what the book is about. Ondaatje is painfully aware of each word he uses, how it flows, the imagery it creates. We are not reading a Who-Done-It, or anything of the sort. We are slowly getting to know people, characters, in the way you would anyone in the real world. For Ondaatje, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Someone said that Ondaatje was the first person to care so much about wording and imagery in writing since the Romantics. I wish I could tell you who said that, but I honestly don’t remember. But they’re right. In an age when it’s about getting a message across, he take the meandering route.
When you read “The English Patient” make sure you take a break every twenty pages or so to let what you’ve read sink in. If you try to read it in long bouts, you will feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the imagery and sheer beauty of the writing. If you take a step back, grab a cup of tea, and then come back to it, you will find yourself refreshed, and yearning to find out more about the characters– who they are and how they got here.
With a beauty few can muster in an age of direct and blunt communication, Ondaatje can weave a story that binds it’s reader to it on a deeper level.


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