The English Patient

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Book: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje Read Free Book Online
Authors: Michael Ondaatje
and Umbria. They hold the remnants of war societies, small moraines left by a vast glacier. All around them now is the holy forest.
    She tucks her feet under her thin frock and rests her arms along her thighs. Everything is still. She hears the familiar hollow churn, restless in the pipe that is buried in the central column of the fountain. Then silence. Then suddenly there is a crash as the water arrives bursting around her.
    The tales Hana had read to the English patient, travelling with the old wanderer in Kim or with Fabrizio in The Charterhouse of Parma , had intoxicated them in a swirl of armies and horses and wagons – those running away from or running towards a war. Stacked in one corner of his bedroom were other books she had read to him whose landscapes they have already walked through.
    Many books open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle.
I begin my work at the time when Servius Galba was Consul … The histories of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, while they were a power, were falsified through terror and after their death were written under afresh hatred .
    So Tacitus began his Annals .
    But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat.
    When she begins a book she enters through stilted doorways into large courtyards. Parma and Paris and India spread their carpets.
He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher–the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon,’ hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot .
    ‘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 a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise.’
    That was the English patient’s first lesson about reading. He did not interrupt again. If he happened to fall asleep she would continue, never looking up until she herself was fatigued. If he had missed the last half-hour of plot, just one room would be dark in a story he probably already knew. He was familiar with the map of the story. There was Benares to the east and Chilianwallah in the north of the Punjab. (All this occurred before the sapper entered their lives, as if out of this fiction. As if the pages of Kipling had been rubbed in the night like a magic lamp. A drug of wonders.)
    She had turned from the ending of Kim , with its delicate and holy sentences – and now clean diction -and picked up the patient’s notebook, the book he had somehow managed to carry with him out of the fire. The book splayed open, almost twice its original thickness.
    There was thin paper from a Bible, torn out and glued into the text.
King David was old and stricken in years and they covered him with clothes but he received no heat .
Whereupon his servants said, Let there be sought for the King a young virgin: and let her cherish him, and let her lie in this bosom, that our King may have heat .
So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite. And the damsel cherished the King, and ministered to him: but the King knew her not .
    The——tribe that had saved the burned pilot brought him into the British base at Siwa in 1944. He was moved in the midnight ambulance train from the Western Desert to Tunis, then shipped to Italy. At that time of the war there were hundreds of soldiers lost from themselves, more

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