Several of The English Patient’s characters (Hana, Caravaggio, and Hana’s stepmother Clara, to whom Hana writes letters) have appeared earlier in Ondaatje’s novel about Toronto laborers, Skin of a Lion (1987). Several others are based loosely on historical figures: the English patient on the real Almásy, a Hungarian explorer of mysterious ancestry who seems to have aided the Germans in World War II and who died in 1951; and Geoffrey Clifton on Sir Robert Clayton East Clayton, a British aristocrat and geographer who participated in a Libyan Desert exploration with Almásy in 1931 and 1932, shortly after his marriage to sculptor and pilot Dorothy Mary Durrant (the novel’s Katharine Clifton). Lord Clayton East Clayton died of a respiratory disease in 1932, and his wife died alone in a plane crash in Great Britain in 1933. Although Count de Almásy and Lady Clayton East Clayton certainly knew each other, there seems no evidence of an affair between them.
Ondaatje develops his fictional characters through flashbacks into their pasts; excerpts from books they read to the English patient; snatches of lyrics from World War II songs; entries from Almásy’s journal; and pieces of Hana’s letters to her stepmother Clara in Canada—the debris of their lives. The characters seldom exist in the present moment alone; they move in and out of the past, in and out of Italy, and in and out of World War II.
Further, as their stories...
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