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.