Posts Tagged ‘Second World War novels’

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

Laurent Binet: HHhH

May 8, 2013

41E5-NIvklL._AA160_I’m really not sure what to make of this novel – or indeed if I even class it as a novel, in spite of what it says on the cover. I’m not sure whether it deserves the award it was given, or just the ramblings of someone who is very up himself. And it was a good read…

Where to start?

It’s about the assassination of Heydrich, by the Czech resistance, in 1942, the background and the consequences. So, at some level it’s historical. And the author repeatedly underlines his research for factual accuracy. It’s very detailed: you would say the couleur locale is very well executed. But it’s also about the author’s fascination with the personality of Heydrich, the events and the personalities, and his own life and decisions keep intruding. This slows down the pace, introduces some reflectiveness, and also develops some suspense and tension. But I kept on thinking, do I want to know about his love life and relationships with Czech women – why is he inserting all this extraneous matter? At that level it becomes as much a book about him, his quest and his fascination. Fair enough, but it was also frequently irritating.

How to deal in a new way with old material that has been used and re-used many times already? Well, I suppose this is one of them, and he did keep me reading. But there was constantly this ‘look at me, I’m doing something so new and wonderful’, along with the putting down of others who’d tackled the same or similar material. To dismiss a novel like Littell’s Les Bienveillantes in a line was witty but gratuitous.

Then I thought, well, okay, I’m of a generation that knows quite a lot about the Second World War and Nazism, and there are other people who don’t, younger generations who need to be informed, and this is a way of communicating the insanity and horrors of the time with them. It’s a history book without being a history textbook, as it were.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and it kept me engaged. But I’m not sure whether it would bear a second reading, without seeming unbearably precious. Ask me in ten years.

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