The English Patient’s Fourth Hand

John Irving’s latest book “The Fourth Hand” is crap and he knows it! Irving must have realized that at some stage during the writing process because suddenly his two leading characters start exchanging accolades about another novel. It is as though Irving is saying “Damn it, if only this novel could be half as well written as that other book.”

“The Fourth Hand” is one of those novels that started life as an excellent idea and yet, upon elaboration, the author found it impossible to make the novel as intriguing and engaging as the clever premise on which it was based. Patrick Wallingford, the protagonist, is a television journalist whose life is changed forever when he loses his left hand to a lion whilst reporting on a story in India. The story then follows Wallingford’s life as he opts for a landmark hand transplant surgery and ends up falling in love with the deceased donor’s wife, one of fiction’s most hollow characters – Doris. Admittedly, the possibilities for drama and subtle exposition of the human condition seem unlimited. The novel starts well and the reader can only be intrigued by this extraordinary context for a love story. It smacks of the honesty and beautiful absurdity of Irving’s “The World According to Garp,” an outstanding book by any standard.

But then “The Fourth Hand” loses itself in banality. The quality of the writing deteriorates to such an extent that one is tempted to think that Irving must have been temporarily possessed by the spirit of a second-rate writer. The reader finds himself almost cringing at times. This state of embarrassed reading is exacerbated by the fact that it’s IRVING for god’s sake. What happened? Some characters are developed for no apparent reason before they are lost never to be seen again. Events from the news rear their heads into the narrative every now and again. The plane crash that tragically ended the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. in July 1999 is used as a pretext to comment on the moral bankruptcy of the news media; but some of Irving’s comments here are as lacking in depth as some of the shallow news reporting he is berating. Wallingford, whose charms no woman on earth could ever resist, finds himself effortlessly bedding the entire female population of the novel – repeatedly. This doesn’t stop him from pursuing the love of his life – Doris of Wisconsin!

And it is in that highly uninspiring love story that the novel finds its only salvation and the reason why I shall be forever grateful for exerting so much effort (and it hurt) forcing myself to finish it. Doris doesn’t return Wallingford’s affections and so, to weave his way into her life, he starts looking for any common denominator. He starts reading “The English Patient”. “The English Patient” was apparently the last film Doris saw with her husband Otto before his tragic death. She had liked the film so much she decided to read the book. Doris opines that the book is “too well written.” “I’m reading it very slowly because I like it too much,” she adds.

Thank you Doris, Wallingford, Irving and Wisconsin!! For Doris’s only believable line in the novel led me to read “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje. Like Doris and Otto, I thought that Anthony Minghella’s 1996 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche was a masterpiece. But, unlike Doris, I didn’t feel compelled to read the book after watching the film. I thought that the film was so exceptionally good that there’s not much that the book could add to it. It took 6 years, and “The Fourth Hand,” to change my mind.

The main purpose for writing this article is to make you read “The English Patient,” if you are lucky enough not to have read it yet. “Lucky” because there’s a world of wonder waiting for you in Ondaatje’s 300 pages of breathtaking prose. It is simply a book like no other. It reads like a magical web of phrases that are at once gloriously poetic and achingly beautiful in their simplicity.

There’s an added poignancy to reading “The English Patient” in these troubled times. The horrific attacks of September 11, the sad events in Israel/Palestine, the jingoism of reaction and counter-reaction, the “axis of evil” that sprung out of the pen of a tired spin doctor, the incredulous masses all over the world … etc. “The English Patient” deals with another time and another war. But the message is the same: Underneath all that, there lies a beautiful yet complex individual humanity that is more enduring than war, fiery rhetoric, and all attempts to paint the world with the brush of temporary boundaries, civilizations and nationalities.

The four unlikely characters who find themselves in the Villa San Girolamo in the dying days of World War II – the fatally wounded desert explorer, a former thief-turned-spy, a Sikh sapper working for the British army, a Canadian nurse – belong to the world. War and history always seem like unwelcome visitors to the reader whenever they force their tensions on the unfolding events in the decrepit Tuscan villa. The English patient, though burnt beyond recognition and drained of life, seems the wisest. His tales of exploration in the Libyan desert reveal a more genuine and humbled view of the world: “There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders make him describe an oasis with her name.”

The English patient fails to save Katherine, the love of his life who lay dying in a desert cave, because of doubts about his nationality. The soldiers who arrested him instead of helping him to save her thought he was just another “second-rate spy. Just another international bastard.” Hana, the nurse, also refers to herself and the sapper using the exact same term and provides a definition: “Born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get away from our homelands all our lives.”
The English patient sums it up best, after recounting his heart wrenching tale, in an outstanding piece of descriptive prose:

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”
“The English Patient” is, above all, a novel about love. Not “love” in the hackneyed faultless sense. But “love” as an inescapable truth, a fact. The relationship between the patient and Katherine defies both social and moral ethics. It leads us reluctantly to a difficult yet inevitable conclusion. Love as a bare emotion is stronger than our natural or socially imposed notions of propriety, and it is impervious to the demands of logic. The English patient notes:

“There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace … A love story is not about those who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing – not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.”

In contrast, the budding relationship between Hana and Kip, the Sikh sapper, seems free of complications. Two characters who find complete solace in each other after having suffered a series of losses during the war. As a nurse, Hana had to witness patients withering away on a daily basis, not to mention the death of her father. Kip’s bomb-disposal work was in essence a daily brush with mortality. His mentor in England, several of his friends, pulled the wrong piece of metal, made one small wrong move, and they were lost forever. The Villa San Girolamo and the quiet grace of Hana provided a sanctuary that he was at first reluctant to get into. But with time, Hana and Kip flow effortlessly into each other. Until the tensions of the world set in. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weigh heavily on the four citizens of the world in the Tuscan hills, especially Kip. “From now on I believe the personal will forever be at war with the public. If we can rationalize this we can rationalize anything,” Hana notes in a letter to her mother in which she tries to make sense of how the war affected her, Kip and those around her.

“The English Patient” is a novel that makes you re-examine so many of the givens that seem to run our lives and the world. It challenges the reader to delve into the essence of humanity and revel in its beauty and challenges. But most important of all, there is a distinctive pleasure to reading Ondaatje’s narrative and his wonderful use of language. At times, you just find yourself sighing with disbelief at the mastery with which Ondaatje phrases his thoughts and the subtlety of his delivery. In recommending this book to you, I would like to leave you with what the English patient says when describing how he fell in love with Katherine. It was right after she stopped reading aloud a story of passion from “The Histories” by Herodotus. “With the help of an anecdote,” he fell in love. “Words …they have a power,” he concludes.

-“The Fourth Hand” was published in 2001 by Random House. Copyright © John Irving 2001
-“The English Patient,” was first published 1992 by Bloomsbury Publishing Limited. The edition I used for this review was published 1993 by Picador. Copyright © Michael Ondaatje 1992

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