The English Patient Analysis
- French-Canadian nurse Hana has an affair with Kip, a Sikh, while she takes care of the Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almásy, who himself has an affair with Katherine Clifton, an Englishwoman. Ondaatje develops these characters in part by exploring the racial tensions between them.
- Set variously in Tuscany, Rome, and the Libyan desert, The English Patient explores the international impact of World War II. Its characters come from vastly different backgrounds, both socioeconomic and political, and converge on the Villa San Girolamo after a series of tragedies. These varied settings offer a glimpse at the widespread global impacts of WWII.
The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanka-born novelist who lives in Canada. He is a writer, consequently, whose work writhes with the tensions inherent among races, cultures, and nationalities. Personal and political histories are Ondaatje’s concerns, particularly as they intertwine and work to shape the emerging individual consciousness. In The English Patient, which shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, Ondaatje multiplies these histories and makes of his novel a four-stranded narrative that moves between love story, history, and mystery. Any story of love involves itself naturally in mystery, and Ondaatje here deftly takes his reader in and out of the often dark and crossing passages of his characters’ lives.
The physical locus of this narrative is the Villa San Girolamo, a former nunnery set in the hills of Tuscany north of Florence. Once occupied by the Germans, the battle-ravaged villa more recently has served as an Allied field hospital. With the war in Italy near its end, the hospital has been abandoned, except for a patient—the English patient—and a Canadian nurse, Hana, who has refused to evacuate the villa with the rest of the hospital staff.
The dramatic locus of this narrative begins in the exchange of stories between these two figures. Each possesses a private history that demands slow and significant telling, and Ondaatje gives them time at the start of his novel to begin those tellings. These stories take the reader back in time and move about in space; they are effective and sometimes inaccurate histories. That, says Ondaatje, is exactly the point.
The English patient is a man without a name, without a face, without an identity, with barely a temporal existence at all: He submerges himself in a cherished anonymity. His body lies blackened and immobilized by burns received in a plane crash in the Libyan desert; that body, in fact, is the wrecked emblem of his story and is that story’s starting point. Memory moves where the body cannot, and the English patient uses a voice sweetened by morphine to take Hana to the desert, to that “place of faith” and ultimate mystery. The English patient is one of a group of explorers who in the 1930’s sought to map the desert of northern Africa. Most of them were upper-class Englishmen, members of the Royal Geographic Society and representatives of a specific British political consciousness. They moved in foreign cultures as aliens seeking to pierce the deep heart and history of place; their cartographies were scientific, political, and emotional.
The English patient pays a severe price for his engagement. Working backward from his plane crash and his rescue by a Bedouin tribe, he unravels slowly the intricate lines of his relationship with the wife of adventurer Geoffrey Clifton. Just as he seeks to understand the desert and the profound attraction it holds for him, so the English patient labors to comprehend his love for Katharine Clifton, mapping her body as if it were strange and powerful terrain. He finds himself eventually “disassembled” by Katharine, and after her death in the plane crash that chars the English patient’s body beyond recognition, he spends his days and nights piecing together a history and a self from the fragments.
Hana listens to that narrative knowing that she,...
(The entire section is 7,325 words.)