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, too, has been “disassembled” by events. Like the English patient, she has been marked by the war in cruel ways: She has lost her father (also badly burned) to the war, and as a nurse she has witnessed close-up the various, inventive, and tragic activities of death. She craves narrative, incomplete though it might be, for it proffers a route back from her own partial mad- ness: narrative functioning as a psychic cartography, of sorts.
Much of Hana’s history remains locked, however, until an element of that history appears—a virtual reality—in her present. David Caravaggio had been Hana’s “uncle” in her childhood in Toronto, her father’s best friend and a professional thief. An expatriate Italian, he had returned to his country to work for the Allies, putting his profession to political and historical use. Betrayed not by his art but by the accident of a photograph, Caravaggio is caught and dismembered by Italian fascists: his thumbs are lopped off, the thief left “disassembled” and recuperating in a field hospital. There he hears of Hana’s circumstance, and he sets out to locate her in the Tuscan landscape. What he has in mind is his own rehabilitation, but what he actually recovers is more than one truth of the past.
Caravaggio’s relationship with Hana drives part of the mystery of Ondaatje’s narrative, for what is superficially avuncular carries with it the suggestion of sexual desire, at least on the part of Caravaggio. Hana, it seems, sparks the thief’s own memory of his marriage and of his wife, now dead. The erotic tension runs near the surface and with special strength from Caravaggio toward Hana; reciprocation is not forthcoming.
That tension is aggravated by Caravaggio’s concern over the relationship between Hana and the English patient, a concern that begins in emotional doubt and evolves into political suspicion. Himself an intimate of the network of intelligence and espionage, Caravaggio comes to a nagging certainty that the English patient is in fact a known and...
(The entire section is 2203 words.)