Book review: Magnificent mystery romance | Sunday Observer

Book review: Magnificent mystery romance

2 June, 2019

K.A.N. Perera’s ‘Aganthuka Rogiya’ is the authentic Sinhala translation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel ‘The English Patient’. It is a magnificent mystery romance about four people who are battling with the past and the present. The powerful lyric narrative unfolds in Northern Italy at the end of World War II.

The story is somewhat exotic. It is narrated mainly through Hana, a young nurse who looks after an English patient who has received multiple burn injuries. He is incapable of bodily movement and remains confined to his bed. Being a victim of the War, he is kept in a deserted and partially dilapidated villa. However, the English patient appears to be an intelligent person who treats Hana as a ‘despairing saint.’

Hana is a victim of circumstances. She does not want to move out of the villa because she thinks it is her bounden duty to attend on the English patient. She performs all her duties as a nurse in a ritualistic style. Soon they are joined by Caravaggio, a former agent of the allied forces. He comes to know that Hana is living in the villa. The trio is joined by Kip who is a young Sikh. His job is to clear the area of enemy mines.


The English patient is unable to read because of his bandages covering the face. He uses hearing aids to listen to Hana who reads various types of books aloud. The English patient looks like a hawk swaddled in sheet. His dark lean face and angular nose give him a mystical look.

Carvaggio was a notorious thief back home in Toronto. He also sees the sheet-draped English patient as a hawk. The story unfolds with the four occupants coexisting in the villa which is a virtual ghost house. Except for the English patient who is preoccupied with the past, others remain as they are. Carvaggio, however, assembles the history awakening the English patient’s memory.

The English patient has fallen from the sky from a burning plane. Ondaatje imaginatively uses the sky, sunlight and desert as the background of the story. He allows his imaginary characters to float on their respective clouds of grief and confusion. He adds long passages describing the landscape, especially, the desert.

Kip is an expert who knows almost everything about bombs. He also knows how to defuse them. His preoccupation with bombs prevents him from understanding Hana’s emotions. Even when he is with Hana, he does not get emotionally involved with her.

As a master story teller, Ondaatje combines historical facts with episodic fictional sequences. This adds a cinematic quality to the novel. In fact, the novel was made into a film recently. On the other hand, the novelist has handled romantic scenes with restraint. The romance between Kip and Hana is contrasted with the brutal passion between the English patient in his former life and Katharine. From his sick bed he relates the story of his tortured love with analytical detachment.

The multiple themes of the novel include war and pain, public and private histories in equal measure. The complexities and horrors of war are beautifully expressed in the novel in a kind of mesmeric prose. The translator has done justice to the original novel with his flawless Sinhala and translation skills. What is more, he has faced the daunting challenge of translating a novel of breathtaking lyrical beauty written by a world-renowned author.

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