If there were to be a competition for the most pretentious novelist of the last decade or so, honorable mention (after Salman Rushdie, perhaps, and David Foster Wallace) would have to go to Michael Ondaatje. The English Patient (1992) was the worst type of pretentious book, too, one without even a redeeming idea or theme to make its pretensions on any level excusable. What was it supposed to be about, anyway? What did the bandaged man stand for, except for the purest solipsism and narcissism? Just where was the nurse supposed to be taking him, and to what end? All it finally amounted to was hip affect, a quality that was consummately realized in the movie version that was to all intents and purposes a two-hour Ralph Lauren ad.

Ondaatje’s new book, Anil’s Ghost,[1] has much in common with The English Patient. What other author, for instance, could come up with ...