Friday, December 11, 2009

Book 29: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I read this book at the insistence of my best and oldest friend Justin Brady. Thankfully I read it before the movie came out. Not that the movie is all that bad but, as usual, the specific nature of what makes the book so great is absolutely absent from the film. The film works beautifully as a tragic Hollywood romance. But the sweat and nerve that goes into defusing an explosive device? No filmed re-creation can hold a candle to what Ondaatje does in this book.

Justin spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guinea-Bissau. Much like my time in France affected me, so did Justin's time in Africa. While there he read Ondaatje's book and it changed his life.

He grew interested in landmines, in the effects they have on societies that struggle in the aftermath of conflict. Now, I'm sure some of the romance and beauty of the novel had something to do with this fascination, but what might have lit someone's brain up for a couple of weeks for Justin turned into a career.

After numerous hazardous jobs with various NGO's, Justin went to work for UNMAS, or the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Imagine for a second that your job, the actions you take in the office you are in each and every day, directly affect human beings who face the threat of unexploded landmines in their surroundings. Well, that is what Justin does. He is the Acting Chief of Programme Planning and Management Section. Which means he deals directly with countries who are attempting to rid their citizens of this threat.

Now, I try to find meaning in my work. I am an actor, a musician, a writer and an administrative assistant. I get great satisfaction from performing these various tasks well, if only for my own sense of self-worth.

But Justin spends each minute of his paid time striving to make various regions safer than they are at this very instant. So when I hear people complain about "the government", or more specifically the United Nations, or about any large organizations dedicated to human kind, I get very frustrated at any kind of cynicism.

No, the United Nations is not perfect. They can be viewed as a symbolic structure without much claim to power or influence.

However, my best friend, a guy with three kids and a mortgage and many other interests (songwriting a chief one), this guy literally spends all his time chipping away at a real problem. He makes a difference. And there are countless people just like him who toil away without much publicity or thanks.

Whenever I hear people ranting and raving about getting government out of their lives, I just want to remind them that governments are PEOPLE. And there are people who NEED those people in government.

We aren't talking about a higher tax rate or re-zoning communities for optimal voting results. We are talking about men in protective gear REMOVING bombs from playgrounds. We are talking about women in classrooms teaching local officials how to teach the general populace in the art of identifying unexploded ordnance.

So read 'The English Patient'. It is a gripping novel and worth delving into even if you saw the movie. And check out for more info.


Sheila O'Malley said...

What a beautiful tribute, Bren. I didn't know about that connection between The English Patient and Justin - makes perfect sense. I loved the book (the movie not so much) and the sapper character who worked de-fusing mines (can't recall his name right now??) was a character I thought about long after I finished the book.

Buckeyballs said...

A career inspired by a novel, as my thesis adviser Cynthia Enloe, Internationally recognized gender expert noted at the diner. It's been a good ride as we say.

Anonymous said...

Justin's da man!

--- Tom H.

Anonymous said...

What Justin does is the highest and best use of government. Trust, I have plenty to say about big government i.e. US imperialistic over-reach and exploitative WB and IMF policy in the developing world but, as Mike Katula just said not an hour ago on FB: "governments and their decisions are not always monolithic in procedure/decision/action/result" and only a tard would lump this UN program in with the diabolical crap.