The English Patient Questions and Answers
by Michael Ondaatje

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What are passages of explicit metafiction in The English Patient? When does the author emerge and blur the line between himself and the third person narrator?

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Metafiction can actually be quite a complex concept to understand and better understanding it will make it easier for one to find further examples on one's own. In short, metafiction happens when the author inserts anything that "breaks up the illusion of 'reality' in a work" (Dr. Wheeler, "Literary Terms and Definitions: M"). One such example can be an author interrupting a story to insert himself as a character. However, where the understanding of metafiction becomes complex concerns all of the different ways that a story's illusion of reality can be interrupted. Plotting can be one way to break up illusion, specifically "over-plotting" and "under-plotting" because both interfere with the story telling ("General Issues and Signs of Metafiction").

Language can also be used to create metafiction, especially when language is used as part of an arbitrary system. One example of using language in an arbitrary system is either the absence or presence of typographical marks, which are various marks used in type setting, like the ampersand. So, if according to standard language rules we indicate dialogue by using the typographical punctuation mark of curly quotation marks, then leaving such things out or using them oddly would be one way in which an author can create metafiction. The odd use of quotation marks is actually one consistent way that Michael Ondaatje creates metafiction throughout The English Patient. Another way to create matafiction is juxtaposing fictional characters against historical characters, which Ondaatje also does through the English patient's constant reference to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Below are a couple of early examples of how Ondaatje creates metafiction.   

One example of metafiction can be found on the very first page. Ondaatje transitions from writing in third person, using pronouns like "her" and "he," to writing in first person. True, it indicates the English patient is speaking; however, there are no standard dialogue indicators like quotation marks, even though the author uses quotation marks in other dialogue exchanges. We see the author first transition into first person in the sentence, "I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, he says, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife," and the dialogue exchange continues from there to be written in first person, except when referring to Hana, and without using quotation marks. Since there are no quotation marks, Ondaatje is using language as part of an arbitrary system without acknowledging language conventions. What's more, using language in an arbitrary system by not indicating dialogue in the conventional way serves to merge Ondaatje with the fictional character, the English patient. We can easily see Ondaatje merging himself with the English patient when we ask that if the narrator speaks in third person and if there is no clear indication of dialogue, then who is really speaking who addresses himself as "I"? There are no clear distinctions between the author and the English patient, and this can be seen all throughout the book.

Another example can be found on the second page. Here, the third person narrator interrupts a narration describing life at the villa, complete with its vegetable garden; man coming into town bringing Hana soap, sheets, wine, beans, meat; and Hana passing her time with the Englishman in order to add a critique of the books that she reads to the patient. The passage reads as follows:

So the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from a mural at night.

Since this passage does not begin with or contain the pronoun she, we know it is no longer the narrator describing things from a narratorial perspective. It is instead written as a critique from Ondaatje's perspective and places the writer in the story as a witness of the story.

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Passages of metafiction in Ondaatje's work can be seen when characters probe the nature of being alive in the world.  These moments operate for the purposes of characterization, but the way they are framed qualifies them as metafiction.  Using the meaning of metafiction as that which will "self-consciously and systematically draw attention to a work's status," Ondaatje uses his role as narrator to reflect his own thematic probings about what it means to be a human being.  These instances of metafiction intrude his own voice so it is present within thematic discussions in The English Patient.

One distinct moment where this line is blurred between a detached narrative voice and a thinking individual who is struggling to find answers is seen in Almasy's copy of Herodotus' work. When Hanna comes across it, Ondaatje's own voice is evident the wording of the narrative frame:  

"There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.”

The dynamics of creation and destruction, restoration and violation, war and peace all drive the novel's thematic focus.  The effect of the narrative is that the reader gains insight into Almasy and his definition of passion. Yet, the metafictional emphasis of the passage shows how Ondaatje probes the nature of war and human betrayal.  Ondaatje shows himself to be examining the blurring of lines between public and private forms of cruelty by blurring the lines between the narrator's voice and the narrative.  This blurring of lines that human beings undertake in their interactions with one another is mirrored in Ondaatje's blurring of lines that remove the narrator and replace him with a thinking individual. Like the characters in the work and the reader, Ondaatje is struggling to find answers to questions that are very challenging.  Passages like what is written in Almasy's book are reflective of that spirit of struggle and questioning.

In smaller instances in the narrative, Ondaatje is searching to better understand moments of human hurt and love.  One of the primary focal points of the novel is how both are inseparable from defining the human condition.  This intricate dynamic is evident in Ondaatje's questions regarding it, such as "How does this happen?  To fall in love and be disassembled?" and "Hana now received this tender art, [Kip's] nails against the million cells of her skin, in his tent, in 1945, where their continents met in a hill town."  

These instances are moments in which Ondaatje uses his role as a narrator to examine the type of questionings and thought that exist in his own mind.  In these moments, the metafiction device enables him to openly engage in his own reflection about concepts that are challenging to articulate and comprehend.  These moments of metafiction allow his role to be blurred as narrator and a reader-voice, which is a type of participant in the thematic musing intrinsic in the novel.  

The line is blurred between Ondaatje the narrator and the person when he illustrates that the human dynamics of seeking to overcome temporal reality and being trapped by it are evident in the novel's treatment of geography.  Ondaatje uses geography as the means to openly engage in thematic exploration as both narrator and human being:

And all the names of the tribes, the nomads of faith who walked in the monotone of the desert and saw brightness and faith and colour. The way a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes part of. We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for this all to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

Cartography is a way in which Ondaatje is able to frame the thematic narrative where he is both author and participant.  The metafictional device he uses is one where the characters are players in an intellectual drama.  Just like Ondaatje and the reader, their struggle to find answers is what defines them.

Ondaatje's use of metafiction is a conscious way to widen a thematic discussion having no finite answers.  It is a way to initiate a transformative intellectual foray into considering the possibilities of "an earth that had no maps."  As we seek to better understand what Katharine articulates, Ondaatje does so as well. He reveals this through the employment of metafiction which blurs his dual roles as narrator and intellectual participant.

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