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The origins of The English Patient​

The origins of The English Patient​

In his acceptance speech on receiving the Golden Man Booker Prize, Michael Ondaatje described the quiet and modest origins of his winning novel: “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.” It turned into something very different and emerged as The English Patient. From tiny acorns. . .

Later, the author reflected on the novel's afterlife, of which the Golden Man Booker was another milestone: “It already had a second afterlife with the film, right? And that was a bolt of lightning that I wasn’t expecting. And then this – suddenly redoing the whole thing again. Another horse race, you know?” It made him recall too the time, some 26 years ago, when the book won the Man Booker and the best gift that came with victory was “Freedom. I had been teaching for many, many years up to that point,” all the while “trying to write a complicated novel”. It wasn't going well: “I thought I was going to lose it – and I had quit my job. I just needed to finish the book. It was a bet.”

Ondaatje also acknowledged V.S. Naipaul, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel and George Saunders who he had pipped to the prize before going on to highlight the richness of the literature of the past 50 years championed by the Man Booker. J.L. Carr, William Trevor, Barbara Pym, Alice Munro and Samuel Selvon were all favourites of his who never scooped the prize but would have made worthy winners nevertheless, he said. He also thanked Anthony Minghella, director of the multi-Oscar-winning film of The English Patient, “who is no longer with us but I suspect has something to do with the result of this vote”.

The news of Ondaatje's win was noted globally – a reflection of the polyglot characters in the book perhaps, which include a Hungarian count, a Canadian nurse, a Sikh sapper, Bedouin tribesmen, German soldiers and British cartographers. A tiny selection of those news outlets to discuss Ondaatje's triumph includes the BBC, ABC, CBC, the Irish Times, the New York Times, the Canadian Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the LA Times, New Indian Express, the Johannesburg Review of Books, USA Today and even Bollywood Life

One of the more unexpected places to flag Ondaatje’s win was travel specialist The Lonely Planet. Its interest was less literary than touristic: keen fans of the book can, it seems, stay at the Italian monastery where much of the action was filmed. The former Sant’Anna in Camprena monastery in Tuscany is situated not far from Siena and is now an agriturismo. In the book, the main attraction of the place are the frescoes in the chapel; guests now, however, can “enjoy self-grown and locally-produced food on a very traditional Tuscan menu” as well as painting, drawing, photography, music and Italian language classes and, in summer, classical music concerts in the church.

Dotti Irving, the organisational eminence blonde behind the prize, celebrates 25 Man Booker years of her own this year: she started work with the prize in 1993. In a Diary for the New Statesman, she revealed that the London apartment block where Ondaatje was staying before the Golden Man Booker announcement was also where she used to have an office. One degree of separation is not enough though. Another Man Booker winner, Howard Jacobson, currently lives there and Kazuo Ishiguro, Man Booker and Nobel laureate, dropped round to visit Ondaatje only the other week. That’s a whole lot of literature under one roof. 

Kamila Shamsie, the Golden Man Booker judge who nominated The English Patient as her pick of Man Booker winning books from the nineties, was recently asked to list her current cultural highlights: the tennis at Wimbledon was one, the all-female heist movie Ocean's 8 was another, and so was Ondaatje's latest novel, Warlight: “I spend the months before the publication of a new Michael Ondaatje novel trying to keep my expectations in check,” she said, “telling myself it’s simply unfair to expect as much of any writer as I expect from Ondaatje. Then he pulls off a Warlight, and I’m embarrassed by my own lack of faith.”