This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
No other novel makes more of a provocation to the form and content of Canadian and world literature than Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. A seminal piece of multicultural and postcolonial literature, The English Patient initiated a worldly tradition of Canadian letters from the vantage point of nation-builders: immigrants, travelers, expatriates, refugees, and exiles
The novel breaks with the realist conventions of the modernist novel, to give birth to the postcolonial demand to bear witness to and remember human history. Ondaatje tells this sorry tale through affective registers of grief, longing, reparation and renewal. His narration is exquisite for its haunting poetic rendition of ruined lives, lives scarred and burned by colonial excess and its history of ruin delivered in bits and pieces of skin, flesh, and ashes. The reader must sift through the rubble of Western pillars and pillages of humanity to make meaning of entangled lives searching for love, home and kinship in a time of extreme social hatred produced from imperial fantasies of world dominance. When the bomb falls on Hiroshima we know, with Kip, that there will be no happy endings for this human story written in a time of ultimate colonial failure. In the aftermath of such horror and unthinkable world carnage, nations will never be the same.
More than any other writer in Canada, Ondaatje produces literature in and of ordinary people living in a world stunned by the excesses of Empire and human folly. Winner of the Booker Prize and made into a film, The English Patient brought Canadian literature to the worldwide stage. This novel continues to be among the most important literary works of our time.
Aparna Mishra Tarc is an Associate Professor of English at York University. Her most recent work is Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity (2015).