The English Patient Criticism
by Michael Ondaatje

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Tamara Fernando

(Novels for Students)

Ralph Fiennes as the English Patient and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine Clifton in the 1996 film version of The English Patient Published by Gale Cengage

Fernando is a writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington. In this essay, Fernando examines how the narrative structure of The English Patient serves as a criticism of traditional historiography.

In The English Patient, the title character is a nameless, severely burned man cared for by a young nurse at the end of World War II. His only possession is a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, into which he has pasted his own writings as well as clippings from other books, creating a collage of knowledge, observations, and unrelated events.

As the patient discusses his love of The Histories with Hana, his nurse, he says of Herodotus:

I see him more as one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seeds, consuming everything without suspicion, piecing together a mirage. "This history of mine," Herodotus says, "has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument." What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history.

Like the patient's personal version of The Histories, Ondaatje's novel is a collage; its narrative structure is not based on chronological events but is constructed largely of numerous non-sequential memories and experiences of the four main characters. This non-linear narrative structure, however, is more than a narrative device. It is through this use of non-linear narration that Ondaatje not only tells the personal stories of the four main characters of the novel, but deconstructs the way history itself is recorded, narrated, and understood.

The "cul-de-sacs" and "the supplementary to the main argument" that so interest the patient in the quote given above are the occurrences and points of view that existed and do exist outside of the chronology of a history (what the patient calls "the main argument.") This idea is illuminated by Amy Novak's essay on the narrative structure of The English Patient, in which she discusses the traditional process by which history is written—that is, the act of historiography. She summarizes the philosopher Hegel's influential theory of historiography thus:

According to a received Hegelianism, which still informs conventional thinking about the past, History is constructed as a linear movement, through erasure, toward an already predetermined meaning…. In order to ensure this coherency of this totality, contradictory moments that do not record the present's coming to Being are erased or expelled from signification.

In other words, the conventional practice of historiography is the telling of history chronologically, that "linear movement" to which Novak refers. That chronology, by its very nature as a linear progression, is therefore singular in its point of view not only of the past, but of the state of the present to which the historical narrative is pointing. The singularity of the point of view of a chronologically written history, in order to remain coherent, eliminates any occurrence or interpretation that not only does not contribute to a forward-moving chronology, but offers a contradiction to that singular, linear point of view. These "erasures" are indeed the supplementary, the "cul-de-sacs" to which the patient refers in the quote above.

History looms large in The English Patient ; the novel takes place during World War II, which is, arguably, the event given the most significance in the commonly known historiography of the twentieth century. But the most familiar stories and people named in the commonly held historiography are strangely absent from this novel. Instead, it seems that Ondaatje seeks to tell what can be called a "supplemental" history of World War II, one that focuses on the private stories of four characters profoundly affected by the war, on those types of stories that would be cast aside as Novak's erasures. Ondaatje's abandonment of the mainstream history is not merely evident in the subject of his novel, but is manifested in the very structure of...

(The entire section is 10,979 words.)