(This blog became a bit of a monster. I want to apologize for all that now. If you don’t want to read or you get lost, I’m with you).
You may be wondering about the title of this blog. Yesterday, I finished The English Patient, one of those “this is the greatest work of literature for the twentieth century” (in my best snobby, elbow-patched, comb-over, white, gray-haired man voice. Clinking champagne glasses creating noise of assumption and stuffiness in the background). I read it because it had been a while since I read a book that I’d like to be able to say, “Yes, yes, ah, I read that years ago, chum chum, it was a very heartfelt read, very good imagery and use of…” at dinner parties. You get my point, yes?
Well, I read it. I’ll probably have to read it three more times to really understand what happened to me after I read it. It felt like my brain got hit by a bus and I walked around my kitchen searching for some sort of food that would make me forget that feeling. I was in such a stupor I actually wondered if they make left-handed can openers.
It took me four days to read those last thirty pages. I never do that with books. I’ll push through, I’ll stay up that extra thirty minutes and be a tired witch the next day just to flip through and let the words decorate my sleep.
“I love the word ‘curl,’ such a slow word. You can’t rust it” (103).
It isn’t that it’s a bad book, it’s beautiful, but it’s slow and dense and the people don’t move. They’re staying stagnant on purpose because they can’t go back and they can’t move forward. They’re all hiding away in an old hospital with drowned books, and holes in the roof which cause the sky to echo in. It’s set during World War II but somehow the horror of WWII barely enters the novel. I really liked that WWII was this thing of the world and it wasn’t a part of their hidden gardens and the dust of their cupboards and the emptiness of their darkness. Darkness is almost always empty though isn’t it? Or it wouldn’t really be darkness, it would be darkness with a patch of truth.
It’s set in darkness inside an emptied hospital. I can just imagine the damp smell of white, the angels humming softly in the dust of the rooms.
I know a woman who opens the window every time a patient under her care passes away. “The souls must have a way to get out,” she says. Hospitals are the place where humans get greedy with their grief. It isn’t the ones who die that are sad and misplaced, but the ones that yearn for them afterwards. It’s the eeriest setting for a book, a place where people go when something almost-deathly has happened; stitches, cramps, headaches, amputation. It’s the place where people feel closest to their beliefs about where we go when things have ceased to exist and the white space begins.
These characters are close to that space in so many ways. The English patient has become a flare for the people around him, a net of safety for their fears. It’s as if he is the candle that burns in his room through the night while the rest of the wings stay shadowed. He is the closest to death and the most alive.
“She would step outside whatever the weather. She wanted air that smelled of nothing human, wanted moonlight even if it came with a rainstorm” (51).
Hana is scarred by a loss and cannot leave where she is.
“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” (4).
When my grandmother died, I started writing poetry about her. She hadn’t talked in anything but “do’s” like “do re mi fa so” since I was eleven so I wrote about her skin. I wrote about the bruises, the way her skin wrinkled and gathered around her veins. I visited the sand patch of her grave, drove by the clutch of t-shirts pinned to a line, the children riding their bikes with tassels hanging from the handlebars. I wish everyday I took a photo of that broken neighborhood outside the fence of the cemetery. I watched the world go by like I wasn’t part of it anymore because I had given a part to her. All of the characters in this book are like me and probably like you. They have lived through something catastrophic in their world. Even if your grief is something other people have scoffed at, you are living in it, rooted down by it’s force and expected to manage. Most of us aren’t given a moment to live in the dark and escape the world. We have to enter into a place with other real people and walk around in their problems and ours.
But what would happen if we were left in dimness? What would happen if no one delivered saran wrapped dinners? No one waited for you to wear make-up again, or something other than sweatpants. I tend to hide in my general life, I need those people who push their way through to bring me out. The English Patient would happen. People would hide in their secrets and moth in them (moth as verb is strange, yes, but fitting).
I think The English Patient is mostly a book about the moment when people surface the water. When they reach the brim of the pond and they push their heads through, hair slicked black down their back and breathe again. It’s for girls who read poetry and lip sync in the mirror. It’s for the people who read this blog, a little lost and a little forgetful, but wanted to cry for an almost-second when they remembered that last funeral, the way the hands were folded over the laps clothed in pitchand cold. For boys who are wounded and accept the habits of winter instead of trying to even the stars inside their small, fragile bodies. We’re all small here, but we’re bright.