One of his five top books on crossing cultures, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
The English PatientRead about the other books on Iyer's list.
by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
There's no leading character in Ondaatje's candlelit labyrinth of a novel and nothing like a dominant point of view. Instead, he ushers four wounded characters into a bombed-out convent, in 1944, and—at a time when people are dying for the passports they carry or the race they represent—allows them to interact without any of them caring or much noticing where the others are from. The English patient, almost fatally, isn't English; the one who is risking his life to defuse bombs for the British army is a Sikh, from India. The gypsy called Caravaggio has lost both thumbs to an Italian; and Hana, the nurse who tends to them all, has a name that could come from anywhere. It's wildly romantic and beautiful and very tough-minded, of course; but every time I go back to the novel, I'm reminded how much it's also revolutionary, charting the outlines of a mongrel society in which all simple divisions blur. If you think this is pure fiction, recall that in Toronto, Ondaatje's base for 40 years, the average citizen today was born in a foreign country.
The English Patient also made John Mullan's list of ten of the best deserts in literature and Jane Ciabattari's list of five masterpiece stories that worked as films.