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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

"She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."


What a perfect description for how I felt reading this extraordinary book, this book that is so much about the power of words - to define, to deform, to deceive and destroy us.


The English Patient takes place in a war-ravaged Italian villa in the summer of 1945.  Its four inhabitants are also war-ravaged, though the war itself has moved away from this part of the world.  They each bear a host of physical and psychological scars, and together they form a microcosm of the damage WWII inflicted on humanity as a whole.  It's a bleak, desperate novel, harsh and cutting, but also, at times so, so beautiful.


[some spoilers follow]


Here we meet Hana, a 20-year-old Canadian nurse, battered and numbed after years of attending to dying soldiers.  "Nurses too became shell-shocked from the dying around them... they began to believe in nothing, trusted nothing.  They broke the way a man dismantling a mine broke the second his geography exploded."  Hana had finally fallen apart completely when she learned that her beloved father, Patrick, had been killed in the war.  When the makeshift hospital she'd been working in began to empty out after V Day, she determined to remain behind with the English patient, who was too injured to be moved.


The English patient himself is a mysterious figure, burned beyond all recognition and claiming to remember nothing of his past; he had been found in the north African desert by Bedouins after his small plane had ignited and crashed.  Though he claims to be an Englishman, and speaks like one, his tales of desert expeditions to the Gilf Kebir in search of the mythical oasis of Zerzura hint that he may, in fact, be the Hungarian explorer László Almásy, who was believed to work for the Germans during the war.


Most suspicious of the English patient is David Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian friend of Hana's father who knew her as a child in Toronto.  Upon hearing that she was staying in the villa, he immediately went out to join her there.  Caravaggio had been a thief who served as a spy for the Allies; after being captured, he was tortured and lost both his thumbs.  Bitter and addicted to morphine, he is nonetheless motivated by a desire to help Hana through her grief and trauma.


The last of the villa's inhabitants is Kip, or Kirpal Singh, a 26-year-old Indian Sikh who serves England as a sapper with particular expertise in defusing bombs and mines.  Each day, he leaves the villa to continue this highly dangerous work across the Italian countryside, which had been heavily seeded with explosives as Axis forces retreated.  Anguished over the loss of his mentor and so many friends and colleagues, Kip is deeply ambivalent towards the English and their colonialist policies.



Many people are familiar with this story via the 1996 movie, which focuses primarily on the English patient's past.  He is, in fact, Almásy, and during his most recent expedition to the Gilf Kebir, fell in love with Katharine Clifton, the young wife of fellow explorer Geoffrey Clifton.  After... well, let's just call it "a series of unfortunate events", she ends up dying alone in the desert, Almásy unable to bring her aid because his foreign name earned him no sympathy in British-controlled Egypt.  The movie wrings their illicit and tragic romance for all the schmaltz it's worth, but it comprises only a small part of the book.  As far as complicated romances go, I found the relationship between Hana and Kip to be just as compelling and heartbreaking.


What I found surprising, though, upon researching the book, is how much of it is based on actual history.  Almásy really existed, and really did discover the Cave of Swimmers in the Gilf Kebir.  Kip's English mentor Lord Suffolk also existed, and did die, along with his secretary and chauffeur, when a bomb he was attempting to defuse detonated.  The Cliftons existed, too, in a manner of speaking.  The book's epigraph reads:



'Most of you, I am sure, remember the tragic circumstances of the death of Geoffrey Clifton at Gilf Kebir, followed later by the disappearance of his wife, Katharine Clifton, which took place during the 1939 desert expedition in search of Zerzura.


'I cannot begin this meeting tonight without referring very sympathetically to those tragic occurrences.


'The lecture this evening...'


From the minutes of the Geographical Society meeting of November 194-, London




This passage does not actually appear in the annals of the Geographical Society, but in the June 1934 issue of the Geographical Journal, there is this:



"Most of you, I am sure, remember the tragic circumstances of the death of Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, followed later by the death of Lady Clayton-East-Clayton... I cannot call upon the readers of the paper to begin their address without referring, very sympathetically, to those tragic occurrences."



Indeed, the Clayton-East-Claytons are the obvious model for the Cliftons.  The young couple did go on an expedition to Gilf Kebir with Almásy, and they did die tragically - Robert of a disease likely contracted on the expedition, and Dorothy about a year later while attempting to complete her husband's work on another expedition.  She'd jumped out of her malfunctioning plane as it was taxiing toward takeoff; a stupid thing to do despite the engine trouble.  Many thought it may have been suicide, the aftermath of a broken heart.


More is fictional in The English Patient than not.  For instance, based on some of his letters discovered in 2010, it's been determined that Almásy was, in fact, gay - ironic considering that the character based on him is regarded as an archetype of heterosexual passion.  And, of course, the real Almásy never crashed a plane or ended up all crispy.  He died of dysentery at the age of 55.


So it's interesting what Ondaatje does here, taking fact and warping or revising it into fiction.  One of the main symbols in the book is the copy of Herodotus's Histories that Almásy carries with him.  Herodotus's aim with his writing was to bring history down to a human scale, tell the stories that are passed by in more conventional chronicles.


" '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 - how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love..."


Ondaatje's book does that, too, revealing the massive forces of this war in the microcosm of his characters.  But Almásy's Herodotus is edited further:


"She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed.  It is the book he brought with him through the fire - a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations - so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus."


And that is exactly what The English Patient is: Ondaatje's own observations and fictions cradled within a historical framework.  It doesn't attempt to fill in the gaps left by historians, but rather to remind us that those gaps are there.  As Almásy says:


"You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society.  Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history."



The book is rife with symbolism.  Aside from the Herodotus, there's the scarred, crumbling villa the characters inhabit, whose emptiness forces them to confront their own demons ("But here they were shedding skins.  They could imitate nothing but what they were.  There was no defence but to look for the truth in others.")  


There are the unexploded bombs throughout the landscape (and scattered through their psyches) that could detonate and destroy them at any time.  ("People think a bomb is a mechanical object, a mechanical enemy.  But you have to consider that somebody made it.")


There's the repeated focus on maps, books, words, and labels.  The significance of how things are defined, from the arbitrary boundaries of nations that drove Almásy's friend Madox to suicide, to the way the provenance of Almásy's name precipitated his tragic fate.  And there's the importance of moving beyond these labels:


"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 all this 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."




"A man with no face.  An ebony pool.  All identification burned in a fire... There was nothing to recognize in him."


The English patient himself is an evocative symbol to all of the characters.  For Hana, he stands in for her father, who also was burned beyond recognition before he died.  Hana had been unable to help him, to be with him as he died, and so the anonymous patient becomes a kind of father figure. "He was a burned man and I was a nurse and I could have nursed him.  Do you understand the sadness of geography?"


For Kip, he represents England, this empire that has subjugated his country and torn his family apart, all while demanding he risk his own life in its service.  And when its ally eventually nukes Japan, Kip lashes out hysterically at the English patient.  "American, French, I don't care.  When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you're an Englishman."


Caravaggio is obsessed with the English patient, believing him to be the spy Almásy that he had been tracking before his own capture and mutilation.  When the patient confirms the truth of this, tells his story, and then goes on to explain his reasons for working with the Germans (unlike the English, they would take him back to the cave where he'd left Katharine's body), Caravaggio lets go of his anger and suspicion.  "Is he what you thought he was?"  "He's fine.  We can let him be."


And for Almásy, the English patient represents the anonymity he'd so craved and been denied.  A chance to remake himself, too late.  "He himself would have been happier to die in a cave, with its privacy, the swimmers caught in the rock around them...  She would have hated to die without a name.  For her there was a line back to her ancestors that was tactile, whereas he had erased the path he had emerged from.  He was amazed she had loved him in spite of such qualities of anonymity in himself."




So this book is many things - a war story, a love story, a meditation on history.  I think I prefer it as Hana's story, though.  Her coming of age, under the most harrowing of circumstances.


"And [Caravaggio] loved her more now than he loved her when he had understood her better, when she was the product of her parents.  What she was now was what she herself had decided to become."


Highly recommended, for all of these reasons.  And for the prose, which is so unbelievably, heartbreakingly stunning.


"A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.  There is a plant he knows of near El Taj, whose heart, if one cuts it out, is replaced with a fluid containing herbal goodness.  Every morning one can drink the liquid the amount of a missing heart.  The plant continues to flourish for a year before it dies from some lack or other."


(2014 #19)