If you are as old as I am, you probably have at least heard of the movie The English Patient, if you have not read the book. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, won nine Academy Awards in 1996, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director. So regardless of whether you have heard of the book, you should at least be vaguely aware of the award-winning movie. What you may not know, now that you have discovered that it was a book first, was that the author of the book is actually a Canadian. Surprised?
Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon, which is modern day Sri Lanka, in 1943, but he immigrated to Canada and became a citizen in 1962. It was here that he went to university, earning a Bachelor’s of Arts from the University of Toronto and a Master’s of Arts from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Ondaatje is more than just an author, but was actually a poet first, having published 13 books of poetry. He won the Governor General’s Award for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in 1970 as well as There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do: Poems 1973-1978, which was published in 1979. He has won many awards through the years, further proving his place among the greatest writers in Canadian history.
The English Patient
In 1992, Ondaatje’s book, The English Patient was published by McClelland and Steward. The book is so titled because the primary character initially does not reveal his story, but speaks English with an accent. Ondaatje set the book in an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign in World War II.
The book brings together several characters who seem to have nothing in common, except that they are all stuck in a villa together. With that, readers are exposed to the history of the North Afracan Campaign as well as different nationalities placed together. The main character, Count Ladislaus de Almàsy is based off of the real LàszlóAlmásy, though the fictional version is more likable. The story also brings a Canadian nurse with a Sikh, a thief, and a mapper, all with very different backgrounds and personal histories to how they wound up together in the villa.
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction
The Man Book Prize is a literary aware that is given out each year for an English-language book that is original and published in the UK. The award is prestigious. Any book that wins the award is guaranteed to be an international best seller. While the award as originally only available to citizens of a British Commonwealth or territory, the rules on that were changed in 2013, denoting that anyone can win the award as long as the book was published in English.
When Ondaatje won the award in 1992 for The English Patient, he became the first Canadian author in the history of the award to win it. That was when Canadian literature really put itself on the map.
Before The English Patient won the Booker Award, Canadian literature did not really exist by itself in the world of literature. Canadian authors would automatically be tied to either Britain or America, leaving out the country’s own heritage and place in the literary world. Once The English Patient grabbed its success, Canada was on the map for the first time. Canadian literature was suddenly being defined as its own genre that had little to do with its neighbors or any other culture’s books. And while Canadian literature may be confused with American literature sometimes, based on the win of the Booker award, Canada can hold its own just fine.