The English Patient
National Identity in Nationless Places
Who we are is shaped by where we are from.
This is a common thread in the human experience; our backgrounds give way to our personalities. But what happens when a person disagrees with the confines of their nation upon their identity? The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje explores what occurs when a person attempts to break away from the mold of a homeland, and begs the question of whether or not misfits can find a place that is truly nationless, from which to carve their own identities.
Set at the close of World War II, the novel depicts a time when nationalistic tensions are high all over the world. There is, indeed, a heightened sense of national responsibility. And yet, the main characters in the novel are all trying to escape it. Hana, a young war nurse, hails from Canada. However, instead of moving forward through Italy with the rest of the nurses and the Canadian Infantry, she chooses to stay behind and care for a single, nameless man, who she simply refers to as the English Patient. This man is called “her despairing saint,” and as she cleans his naked, ruined body, she imagines he has the “hipbones of Christ” (page 3). It is clear she not only cares for him, but worships him, perhaps because he is the only thing that keeps her going. Though, unlike her patient, Hana’s body is intact, the same cannot be said for her mind. She too, is ruined: her lover and father both died in the war, and the impact of the loss of the latter has nearly driven her insane.
Hana no longer thinks of Canada, her homeland. To maintain a certain level of sanity, she focuses on her job as a nurse and her immediate surroundings. Those surroundings are indicative of her mental state as well; she and the other characters reside in the Villa San Girolamo, a bombed out villa in a deserted, war-torn landscape. This building is unsafe: page 7 of the text states that in the villa, “some rooms could not be entered because of rubble. One bomb crater allowed moon and rain into the library downstairs — where there was in one corner a permanently soaked armchair.” And this open air villa is not exactly giving way to a landscape of lush Mediterranean beauty, either; the countryside is literally rotting, and the post-war smell of decaying flesh is constant. However, Hana finds solace in the villa, in that the place is, well, placeless.
The English Patient himself desires placelessness. Over the course of the novel, we, the readers, slowly discover his identity. He worked before the war as a British mapmaker, but effectively committed treason when he used the knowledge he learned as a cartographer to smuggle Axis soldiers across the desert. Almasy doesn’t care about the borders of countries or the fights between them; to him, every place is like the desert he spent so much of his life studying and living in — so easily and dramatically altered by the wind. He is so far removed from constructs of society that he has no nation. And yet, he is physically broken; so much so that his identity has been burned away. Could it be that the physical deformity that conceals his physical identity reveals to the reader the rift in his mental one, the space where an innate place of belonging should be? How crucial is place to one’s state of being?
Consider yet another character, Kip. Kip is a Sikh Indian who worked as a sapper in the war. He had the dangerous job of dismantling unexploded mines. Kip’s decision to join the British Army was a complicated one; he was supposed to become a doctor while his brother served, but his brother, who was very nationalistic and despised the British Empire for what they had done to India, refused, so Kip went in his place. Kip does not harbor nearly as much animosity towards westerners as his brother, but he does notice that his fellow soldiers treat him differently because of the color of his skin. In true Kip fashion, he remains distant and apathetic about this behavior as well as the broader conflict of interest between the west and his homeland of India. However, when the United States drops the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the war, Kip is moved. He knows these bombs would never have been dropped on a white nation, and he feels a surge of empathy and passion for his roots, his home in Asia. No matter how neutral he attempted to be, his relationship with his homeland never disappeared, and returned full force when he felt it had been irreplaceably harmed. Kip was thousands of miles away from India, but he couldn’t escape it; a person’s homeland travels with them in their souls.
Countries are just lines on a map. But the communities, peoples and governments within those lines have a significant impact on the crafting of an individual. That individual may try to escape, to mold their own identity regardless of drawn borders, but it is near impossible. They can run, they can distance themselves from their homeland as much as physically possible, but the absence of roots will only serve to leave them marred for life. And beware — even for those who think they have escaped, a single moment in time and history can send them flying back to where they belong.
The Poetics of The English Patient: From the White Page to the Silver Screen
The English Patient has been referred to as “a poem disguised as a novel.” Much emphasis is directed toward Michael Ondaatje’s language, which “takes center stage, gliding and soaring, drifting into the hidden rooms of his character’s souls, striking dissonant chords, floating above destinies with Godlike power in one sentence, burrowing into the muddy terror of a bomb crater in the next.” The beauty of Ondaatje’s novel does not arise from its plot, nor from its characterizations, the intricacies of its settings, or the exuberance of Ondaatje’s storytelling. Instead, the artistry and power of his tale arise from his careful use of language: the tropes, metonymy, magically fluid prose, and striking imagery evoked from his placement of the Word. The language of The English Patient is the heart that pumps blood through the novel’s spine, without which all the life that teems in the book would die. Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of The English Patient also brings to mind poetry, but through the visual medium of film. Through use of symbolic imagery and visual signifiers, Minghella conjures up themes resonant with meaning and universality. The film version of The English Patient is, like its novel counterpart, a literary work. It may seem counterintuitive to call a film “literary”, but Minghella’s direction – particularly in his use of dialogue and cinematography – elicits a poetic effect. When reading Ondaatje’s novel, the reader is struck by its beauty, just as the viewer of Minghella’s cinematic adaptation is first and foremost cognizant of the beauty of his moving image. Though literary critics and film enthusiasts were heavily skeptical about Minghella’s adaptation, panning The English Patient as a novel that was impossible to translate into film, Minghella’s ambitious adaptation ultimately succeeds due to its intense focus on the poetic parallels between literature and cinema. How does one make a film out of a book such as The English Patient? Minghella achieves his goal by avoiding literalism. He does not translate the book faithfully, but manages to do justice to its story. Instead of using every single plot device found in the novel, Minghella focuses sparingly on Ondaatje’s most haunting and redolent passages – the medicine man who appears like an archangel, the description of the swimmers in the cave, the intimacy of Almasy and Katherine’s conversations in his apartment, the scene where Kip takes Hanna to the chapel – and replays them in a series of ever-tightening flashbacks. His judicious use of Ondaatje’s glorious language is poetic precisely because it reflects the silence of poetry. On a prose page, every single line is filled with words, and the lines scroll unbroken from margin to margin. A poem, however, is dense with silence, with white space, with equal parts what is said and what is left unsaid. Similarly, Minghella says little and relies on interpretation to bring meaning into the spaces in his story. The character of Almasy is a mystery not only to the audience, but to the other characters as well. His skin, burnt ember and brittle from a horrific and mystifying accident, is like a poetic text that is read by the characters around him. Moreover, Almasy is full of stories, and when he delivers his tales to others, they always appear more as fragmented poems than linear accounts. “There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk. He wakes in the painted arbour that surrounds him with its spilling flowers, arms of great trees. He remembers picnics, a woman who kissed parts of his body that are now burned into the colour of aubergine.” The disparate visual images of hawk, arbor, flowers, picnics, and skin in the shade of an eggplant seem almost like the disjointed pieces of a haiku. His memory, which returns to him bit by bit, flows and ebbs through The English Patient like a poem that is constantly being revised and reworked, and around him characters are enthralled by his shrouded mystery. Despite appearing, at times, to be unwelcoming and stern, Almasy has an uncharacteristic penchant for singing. Scattered throughout Ondaatje’s text are references to songs which are, though frivolous, still considered by many to be modern-day lyrical poems. From verses like “I’ll be looking at the moon/ but I’ll be seeing you” to “We’ll bathe at Brighton;/ The fish we’ll frighten/ When we’re in./ Your bathing suit is so thin/ Will make the shellfish grin/ Fin to fin,” Almasy is always associated with song, yet another indicator of his fragmented being. And despite the ridiculousness of the lyrics, Almasy treats these songs as if they were legitimate poems: “The English patient was discussing the unfortunate life of Lorenz Hart. Some of this best lyrics to ‘Manhattan,’ he claimed, had been changed…’Splendid lines, and erotic, but Richard Rodgers, one suspects, wanted more dignity.'” Furthermore, the desert itself is spoken of in the language of poems, as Almasy recalls, “Men had always been the reciters of poetry in the desert. And Madox – to the Geographical Society – had spoken beautiful accounts of our traversals and coursings.” As Madox concurs, the texts published by the explorers – their maps, their descriptions and drawings of the desert – all that may be considered poetry. Herodotus, another recurrent motif throughout the novel, also writes in poetic prose that Almasy is deeply fascinated by, to the extent that he always carries a volume of Herodotus with him when he is in the desert. “The wandering and disparate nature of Herodotus, complemented and echoed by the various interstitial writings of the English patient, seems more and more to figure the authority of a history which comprises…discontinuous writing in differing modes.” When the explorers are in the desert, they are inexplicably drawn to poems, and around the campsite they often recite verse to one another. Katherine reads “in her formal voice…’I walked in a desert/ And I cried:/ Ah, God, take me from this place!/ A voice said: It is no desert./ I cried: Well, but–/ The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon./ A voice said: It is no desert.” The resplendent scenery of the book is best described in the vocabulary of a poem, and Ondaatje’s characters, when in the desert, erupt in poetry as if there were no other mode of communication.The poetic elements which gave Ondaatje’s novel so much texture and significance are duplicated in Minghella’s film because, as Barbara Shulgasser of The San Francisco Examiner reports, “What I enjoyed most about the novel and now Minghella’s magnificent cinematic vision is that the themes within are so complex, so intricate, so layered and so multiple that I would never presume to report what the film – or book – is about.” She continues, “I can only recount its ingredients; in it are small, poetic essays on love, passion, loyalty, patriotism, imperialism, war, cynicism, art, history, racism, loss, and courage. To elucidate further than that, I fear, would be folly.” Just as a poem cannot be ‘summariazed,’ so can a film like The English Patient never be ‘summarized’ to mean one thing. Instead, it is comprised of many individual and fragmented parts, which contain meaning only once they are combined. To create a sense of visual poetry, Minghella uses beautiful cinematography – breathtaking shots of the desert, the roar of imperialist Cairo, and the majesty of the Tuscan summer – to summon, in the minds of the viewer, a sense of awestruck wonder at the beauty of his creation. Individual poetic symbols are also employed by Minghella in the form of cinematic metaphor, as certain visual objects and cues are intended to represent other objects, ideas, people, and situations within symbolic relationships. For example, the figure of the ostrich is, in the film, a metaphor for predatory love, particularly between the characters Almasy and Katherine. Condensed milk is the medium through which the dissimilar Almasy and Kip find a common bond, whereas Almasy relates to Caravaggio through their shared love of records. Almasy is also a Christ-like figure, whose hipbones remind Hanna of a crucified Jesus. Indeed, throughout the novel and film, symbols of religiosity consistently arise, from the monastery which Hanna and Almasy reside, to the nuns at the Christmas party where Almasy and Katherine consummate their love in public, to the Sheikh religion of Kip as a indication of his racial separation. These objects and images are expressed on the silver screen as symbolic representations, and “in exchange for a sharp central story – or even one that is easily described – the film offers such indelible images as cave paintings of swimmers in the desert, a sandstorm of mysterious (and prophetic) fury…and a well-worn, memento-filled volume of Herodotus.” In Almasy’s volume of Herodotus, which he uses as a diary as well as a historical manuscript, he often records his relationship with Katherine in the form of poems – and, in brief and rare instances, Katherine responds in the form of a poem. On a postcard, where “neat handwriting fills the rectangle,” Katherine has written: “Half my days I cannot bear not to touch you. The rest of the time I feel it doesn’t matter if I ever see you again. It isn’t the morality, it is how much you can bear.” Later on in the text, Almasy has “translated her strangely into my text of the desert. The wild poem is a substitute’ For the woman one love or ought to love,/ One wild rhapsody a fake for another.” Minghella appreciates Ondaatje’s love of poetry, and renders it into the form of film. Hanna, for instance, finds one of Almasy’s poems in his Herodotus and reads it aloud for the audience. “Betrayals in war are childlike/ compared with our betrayals during/ peace. New lovers are nervous and/ tender, but smash everything – for/ the heart is an organ of fire.” After reading his verse, Hanna looks up at Almasy with emotion in her eyes and says, “I believe that.” By relating to the poetry of The English Patient, the audience, too, believes in the passion that ignites between Almasy and Katherine, and Minghella’s use of the love poem as an expression of both love’s rapture and despair impels his audience to feel for his protagonists.In her article “The English Patient: From Fiction to Reel,” Maggie M. Morgan writes, “One must admit that both the novel and the film arise from the same spirit: a spirit that believes in the value of art and literature.” The love of literature, art, and poetry is evident in both Michael Ondaatje’s and Anthony Minghella’s renderings of The English Patient. In one particularly telling scene, Hanna and Kip meet in a library, when Kip saves both her life – and the lives of the books on the shelves – by removing a bomb from underneath her piano. They go on to fall in love. Katherine and Almasy connect over Almasy’s volume of Herodotus, which Katherine asks if she may borrow. Hanna reads Almasy books when he is ill in the villa, and Almasy and Kip love to debate about the merits of Rudyard Kipling and other English writers. Books hold an immensely important role in The English Patient, and Minghella translates the text of the novel onto the medium of film by using the forms of poetry – both visual and literary – which are so rife in Ondaatje’s imagination. Before he was a writer of novels, Michael Ondaatje was a writer of poems. His lush, glorious prose in The English Patient is a prose showcase of the poetic form. Anthony Minghella’s beautiful film perfectly unites the poem, the novel, and the movie, and in doing so, proves itself to be a hugely successful adaptation.
Characters as Portrayed Through Themes and Images
Patterns of imagery, symbol and metaphor inform a reading of the novel as much as character or plot. Discuss with close reference to The English Patient.Whilst the four main characters of The English Patient are extremely powerful, and important to the reader’s understanding of the story, they cannot stand alone without the patterns of imagery, symbolism and metaphor which underpin the text, and offer a complexity which extends beyond the literal level. These patterns reveal information about each character, and provide significant links between characters and ideas which lead to a greater understanding of the novel. Likewise, the plot would have little impact upon the reader were the novel not so densely coloured with these patterns of imagery, symbol and metaphor; amongst which skin, hands, mapping and the elements are particularly important.A metaphorical idea which resonates throughout the novel, and is present in all of the characters (particularly the English patient and Caravaggio) is the concept of man as a sort of communal Book, whereby every aspect of his life, and his relationships with others are “mapped” onto him. This also operates literally, through the obvious markings of scars on the English patient, and in Caravaggio’s case, the loss of both thumbs….his black body, beginning at his destroyed feet… ahove the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.This description of the English patient’s body is gruesome and confronting; it addresses the theme of pain, the construction of identity, and of course the physical evidence of his tortured past, which the reader learns more about as this imagery develops. It is almost as if his body is a landscape; a war zone onto which all evidence of suffering is mapped.Imagery of hands is used repeatedly in the novel to communicate the theme of the ambiguity of the past and experience, but also as being an important medium for reflection and observation.Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog¹s pawshe would smell the base of it¹s paw. This, he would say, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet!a hint of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.Whilst hands are explored as a medium for recording history and experience, the idea of past experience as ambiguous and subjective is very important to the text. Whilst Hana’s father recognises the reflexive nature of the body, and hands, he does not acknowledge the other side to the argument; the fact that experience and identity can be hidden through the physical nature of the body. This manifests itself in the scarred state of the English patient; a man (despite his ‘label’) without nation, name or a tangible, accessible past. The scars on his body allow him to live as a blank canvas, and any speculations as to his possible identities, are just that; speculations, despite how credible they may be.To find “truths’, is an impossible task, as the nature of history and experience is subjective. However, the body is a canvas onto which every experience is recorded, and this is evident in all of the characters of The English Patient.A love story is not about people who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing- not the wisdom of sleep or the habits of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.This writing of the English patient’s refers to this metaphor, of experience as being “mapped” onto an individual through powerful emotions such as love. His love affair with Katharine affects him so much so, that when the affair comes to an end through Katharine’s insistence, Almasy is so damaged that he begins displaying obvious behaviour in public without being aware of it. His love of Katharine has possessed him, almost like a devouring or predatory animal, like the “jackal” he later compares himself to while it is unclear as to whether Clifton was directly told of the affirir, it is implied that he just knew intuitively; the casualties of this love affair, Katharine and Almasy, could not hide their “scars”.Imagery describing the setting of the novel links to the idea of the villa as a paradise, and escape for the shell-shocked survivors, whilst the desert is an oasis; a calm, yet dynamic spiritual ground, governed by the elements. Both settings are linked with the symbolism of the elements, and the desert especially contains many references to water.He, who has never felt alone in the miles of longitude between desert towns. A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something which feeds him more than water.The “unmarked” nature of the desert is something which Almasy loves, as within it he feels alive, free and nourished, without the restrictions placed upon him through nations and identity. The desert is linked to the element water, as it refreshes and enlivens the soul, and also the imagery of hands, and their healing properties.He sank to his knees and came towards the burned pilot and put his cold hands on his neck and held them there.In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.The imagery of hands and skin, along with the elements of fire, water, air and earth are all linked together in the descriptions of both settings, and overlap in their explorations of the themes of the novel. The element of water is particularly important to the setting of the desert, as its scarcity symbolises the harshness and brutality oft he environment, and also the war which has an impact on both settings; the Villa and the desert.Regarding characters’ connections to the elements, whilst the English patient is clearly linked to fire, Hana is similarly linked to water. Water represents her need to be cleansed, and to cleanse others from the harshness ofwar. The purity of water relieves and numbs her symptoms of shell-shock, and she is able to escape into this ‘fantasy-paradise’ of the Villa, that she has constructed for herself and the other characters.She wets her hands and combs water into her hair till it is completely wet. This cools her and she likes it when she goes outside and the breezes hit her, erasing the thunder. The ritualistic nature of Hana’s connections with water are evidence of her need for something to sustain her spiritually. Having lost everyone who was ever close to her through war, Hana escapes her own past sufferings, and those of others, through her connection with the elements, particularly water. This is also mirrored in the desert setting, where Katharine’s preoccupation with the moisture of her surroundings in England prevents her from understanding and perceiving the beauty of the ‘nameless’ desert, as Almasy does. This appropriately links to Katharine’s need for tradition, for a tangible link to her ancestors, the family name, and her identity.She would have hated to die without a name.Katharine’s link to water (in many ways, the complete opposite of fire), and to her need for a recognisable identity provide an interesting and necessary contrast to the English patient, who is linked to fire and the obvious construction of identity.Fire and burning is linked to the apocalyptic experiences that all characters suffer throughout the course of the novel, right up until the end, where Kip is betrayed by his paternal coloniser England, and makes a journey back through the ruins of European civilisation, “re-mapping” his path for life. Fire is portrayed as a destroyer, But also as a hidden healer; it marks an end, but also marks a new beginning for some. When the English patient fell burning in to the desert, it was indeed and end for him; metaphorically if not physically. His body is incredibly destroyed by the fire, his skin burned the “colour of aubergine”. For the English patient, fire is representative of anger, regret, and sorrow, but is also the elemental mediator of human actions. Clifton had planned to kill Almasy, Katharine and himself in a murder suicide, which, whilst it does not work out exactly according to plan, has tragic circumstances. However, whilst Almasy survives to live a few more years, it is not without continuous pain and suffering. No characters survive without being ‘touched’ in some way by the elements; either positive or negative. His lover having died in the Cave of Swimmers, amongst her chosen element of water, the fire has then destroyed all evidence of her existence. All he has left are his memories, which, blurred by the growing dosages of morphine, are also, as the novel raises into serious question, unreliable. Prior to this, when Katharine insists upon their separation as lovers, Almasy experiences another end.His hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy.Katharine and Almasy’s relationship is effectively destroyed by the expectations of European culture. He wishes to “burn” these strict social codes in order to give priority to what really has meaning; love. The consuming nature of fire is also linked to the intense emotional and physical desire expressed in the relationship between these two lovers….the heart is an organ of fire.Once captured by love, the heart is “burning and consuming”, it can never return to the way it was. In this instance, fire is seen as a new beginning; the consuming nature of fire is linked to love.What he does gain through fire however, is the ability to detach himself from his name, race and past; his identity is stripped, or burnt off, along with the skin on his body. What and who he was is of no importance to him, and he is finally able to relinquish all labels, as he was wishing to his whole life. Ironically, the months before death, while confined to a bed in a villa far away from the desert he loves, he is able to gain psychological freedom.I fell burning into the desert..Then his legs are free of everything and he is in the air, bright not knowing why he is bright until he realises he is on fire.These intriguing comparisons, between destruction and fire, between fire and love, are epitomised in the above quote which holds a painful beauty in its language. The element of air, is part of his journey through fire; another level or stage he must endure in suffering. Both sides of fire are revealed; illumination, light, a new beginning, versus pain, death and apocalypse. The symbolism of fire in the novel is no different to the other symbolism and imagery, in that there is always a complex and sometimes contradictory nature to the themes explored through such references.When Kip hears of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, images of fire and destruction fill his mind.If he closes his eyes he sees the streets are full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burnt map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadow of humans suddenly in the air.In this instance, fire can be seen as a conquerer of all other elements; its consuming nature spreads over into other elements, almost ‘betraying’ the purity of water, or the freedom of air with its destructive, scorching flames. The character most linked with fire, the English patient, is also seen as a betrayer of sorts; a spy, a man guilty of adultery, a man unable to save his lover from death, and also a betrayer in Kip’s eyes. To Kip, the English patient represents European colonial powers, and their destructive nature. It is not of importance to him that the English patient may not even be English, he still feels betrayed by the colonial powers he has been mimicking his whole life. However, fire is also associated with Klp, who is literally “in the line of fire” everyday, through the possible dangers of defusing bombs. While he does not betray anyone, it is the fire that betrays him; firstly his partner is killed, and then the English powers who bomb Hiroshima betray his expectations, and his trust in their wisdom and culture. These images again return to Kip a little later in the novel, just prior to his leaving the villa.When he closes his eyes he sees fire, people leaping into rivers into reservoirs to avoid flame or heat that within second burns everything, whatever they hold, their own skin and hair, even the water they leap into.Kip’s acknowledgment of the evils of war and Western civilisation come suddenly, and spread like fire, pursuing his consciousness to the point where he must re-evaluate his situation, and identity. As the coda informs the reads of Kip’s return to India, it suggests that he has overcome this ‘internal’ fire, and he, like the English patient, is now free.Patterns of symbolism involving the elements are integral to the meaning of the novel. The four main characters, Hana, Caravaggio, the English patient and Kip, are all linked together, and complement each other in what resembles a constellation, perhaps a reference to the four elements which permeate the novel; fire, water, air and earth, although they are non-specifically related to each character. The imagery in the novel is descriptive, poetic, and at times confiontational, which acts to shock the reader into acknowledging the incredible circumstances under which all characters are ‘surviving’, towards their own struggles to freedom. The implementation of imagery, symbolism and metaphor also mirror the horrors of the wa rin which these four people are involved. The themes explored through the elements in particular, are complex and contradictory, just as the elements are themselves. Sometimes harsh, sometimes cleansing, and almost always painful, these elements shape the characters and plot, and reside in much of the imagery explored in the novel. The techniques of symbolism, metaphor and imagery develop the novel’s themes of love, war, suffering and identity, which inform a reading of the novel which would not be as powerful through use of characters and plot alone. The subtlety and eloquence through which these themes are explored really inspire thought and reflection in the reader, which in turn credits a more complex understanding of the novel.