Ways of being a man
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Bloomsbury, 307 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1254 X
Can a penis sleep like a sea horse? The question arrests us on the first page of The English Patient:
Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet ...
She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.
Though it is possible to think of a penis as asleep and as having in sleep the shape of a sea horse, a penis is not well said to sleep like a sea horse, for sea horses are beady-eyed little creatures, characteristically alert and erect. Michael Ondaatje’s prose is inventively figurative, but his figures do not always quite add up. A man sets off across the desert on foot, seventy miles to the next oasis: ‘water in a skin bag he had filled from the ain hung from his shoulder and sloshed like a placenta.’ As sea horses do not typically sleep, so a placenta does not slosh, at any rate not when it is functional in the womb, as here, by analogy, it is imagined to be. For figurative language to succeed it must work at the level of ordinary meaning as well as at the level of allusion. Ondaatje’s images fail sometimes to achieve this balanced ambiguity. His imagery has about it something of the 17th-century Metaphysical conceit (‘There was that small indentation at her throat we called the Bosphorus. I would dive from her shoulder into the Bosphorus. Rest my eye there’) and it lays itself open to Johnson’s criticism of that kind of poetry: its wit though ‘new’ is not ‘natural’ and it is prone to produce ‘combinations of confused magnificence’. Some of Ondaatje’s combinations are more confused than magnificent. There is a cloudy quality to the sea horse and placenta images, but we can still see where we are going. At other moments in The English Patient a fog descends: ‘Cold nights in the desert. He plucked a thread from the horde of nights and put it into his mouth like food.’
One man’s overwriting is another man’s poetry, but in my view Ondaatje allows himself too much latitude in the direction of high-sounding prose. In its poetic vein his writing tends to self-parody, to be portentous, and to create an air of solemnity which tempts irreverence. Ondaatje spent eight years writing The English Patient, a fact which his publisher reports as though it somehow guaranteed the novel’s quality, making Ondaatje into a kind of modern Flaubert. But it may be that Ondaatje has spent too long considering what he has written, listened to himself so often that he has occasionally lost a sense of what he is sounding like. Would Flaubert, at any rate, have written the phrase ‘turn eternal in a prayer’ or ‘there was a thread, a breath of death in her’ ? For want of a sensitive editor, Ondaatje might do well to take up Voltaire’s practice of reading everything that he writes out loud to his cook, or his cat.