The English Patient Questions and Answers
by Michael Ondaatje

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How does The English Patient complicate or reinforce the idea of nationhood or national identity?

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Beginning with the identity of the titular “English patient,” Michael Ondaatje’s novel challenges the solidity of national identity. This patient—badly burned and wrapped in bandages—is not actually English, but Hungarian. In the Italian makeshift hospital set up during World War II, people of numerous nationalities are thrown together by the war, but their motivations and actions are only partly determined by their nationality. One of the Canadian characters is of French heritage, and the other is of Italian heritage, yet they had been connected in pre-war Canada. As Almásy, the patient, relates his story to Hana, the reader learns that his affair with the English woman, Katherine, was complicated by the fact that he and her husband were espionage agents. Geoffrey, her husband, was English, but he betrayed his country by spying for the Axis.

The character of Kirpal Singh clearly shows the complexities of colonial identity. An Indian man who is a British colonial subject, he has been assigned an anglicized identity with his nickname of “Kip.” Singh has apparently embraced the Allied cause, but we learn that he actually joined to save his radical brother. He is not merely a soldier, but he has the highly skilled and very dangerous job of “sapper”—he defuses bombs. This occupation can be taken to represent his role as a peacemaker who tries to ameliorate the effects of war. Ondaatje also provides irony in the fact that the reader knows what Singh cannot—that within a few years, India will achieve the independence for which his brother suffered.

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