From the Publisher
"A rare and spellbinding web of dreams." —Time
"Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic, it transports the reader to another world . . . . Ondaatje's most probing examination yet of the nature of identity." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Mr. Ondaatje [is] one of North America's finest novelists . . . . The spell of his haunted villa remains with us, inviting us to reread passages for the pure pleasure of being there." —Wall Street Journal
Ranking the author among such contemporary novelists as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, Cressida Connolly in the Spectator, praises the poetic quality of Ondaatje's fiction. "The writing is so heady that you have to keep putting the book down between passages so as not to reel from the sheer force and beauty of it," the reviewer exclaims, adding that "when I finished the book I felt as dazed as if I'd just awoken from a powerful dream."
New York Times Books of the Century
...[An] intensely theatrical tour de force [that] reveals, if not a great peace at the heart of the human mystery, a vision of how heroic the struggle is.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic...It transports the reader to another world.
Who is this wounded soldier living at an abandoned Italian villa near the end of World War II? He does not remember his name, only that he is British, but pieces of his conversation betray his knowledge. For the woman nursing him, his past does not matter. But as their twosome is invaded by two others, all focus shifts to his "true'' identity. Ondaatje deals with the culture he knows best: the British family, living in Canada, relocated during the war. Poet that he is, he replaces narrative with vivid, lyric snapshots. Listeners may have to periodically rewind the tape to recall who is who, since the four ruminating voices, narrated by actor Michael York, are seldom identified by name, and flashbacks add to the confusion. But this book is best appreciated if listeners suspend a focus on the immediate narrative line, picking up bits of the story here and there, retaining enough imagery that eventually they understand a much greater whole. As such, it's a masterpiece. -- Rochelle Ratner, formerly Poetry Editor, Soho Weekly News
A man on fire parachutes from a burning plane, crash-landing in the Sahara. He is rescued by Bedouins who wrap him in oil and felt. World War II is winding to a miserable close, and eventually the man is brought to an Allied hospital set up in an old Italian villa. When the rest of the patients and staff leave for home, a young, half-mad Canadian nurse insists on staying behind with the unidentified burn victim. Hana's grief over the suffering of the wounded and her father's death have made her crave the ravaged beauty of the villa and the still company of this silent, pain-ridden man, but an old family friend tracks her down. A thief by nature, turned spy by the war, Caravaggio was captured and tortured. This trio of the wounded and haunted becomes a quartet when they are joined by Kirpal "Kip" Singh, a Sikh serving the British as a sapper, or mine-disarmer. Ondaatje slowly reveals the past of each of these battered survivors, evoking the subtleties of their psyches from the mysterious patient's deep knowledge of the desert to Kip's sixth sense for locating and neutralizing hidden bombs. This is a poetic and solemn narrative of the horrible process of war, the discipline, displacement, loss, and sudden, desperate love. Ondaatje seems to whisper, even confess each scene to his readers, handling them gingerly like shards of shattered glass. Yet another dazzler by this accomplished novelist and poet.
A rare and spellbinding web of dreams.
Read an Excerpt
She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.
In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.
She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.
Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.
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.
She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.
What? she asks, coming out of her concentration.
He turns his dark face with its gray eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.
He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.