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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

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Almásy

Almásy

The protagonist and the "English patient" of the novel's title, Almásy exists as the center and focus of the action, despite the fact that he is without name or identity for much of the novel. Almásy thus serves as the blank sheet upon whom all the other characters focus their desires and expectations. Little by little, he reveals his identity, and finally his name, in Chapter IX. When Almásy's name is revealed we discover the great irony of the novel: the "English patient" is not even English, but rather Hungarian by birth, an "international bastard" who has spent much of his adult life wandering the desert. In this way, the English patient serves to highlight the great difference between imagination and reality, and the abstraction of concepts such as nationality and citizenship. On the whole, Almásy is not at all what the other characters think he appears to be.

Almásy's manner is knowledgeable and reflective. His entire career has consisted of searching for ancient cities and mapping empty land. He thus links the past to the present, writing in the margins of Herodotus what he sees to be the truths of the landscape. Almásy's clear-minded and otherwise rational thinking, however, is clouded by the entrance of Katharine Clifton into his life. He becomes obsessed with images of her body, which then inspire the writing of his book. He is unable to focus on his work, frustrated that he is at a loss to name the spot at the base of her neck. Almásy is overwhelmed by passion for Katherine, walking without direction through the desert like a madman after her death, searching for her body so he may return her to England as he promised.

Though Almásy is not a highly dynamic character—by the year in which the story is set, all the events of his life have passed—he is arguably the most intriguing and mysterious figure. He is portrayed in a sympathetic light, but we must keep in mind that this may be because we hear his story from his own point of vies. From an objective perspective, many of his actions, lies, and betrayals appear reprehensible. Nonetheless, Almásy escapes total condemnation because of his knowledge, charm, and adherence to his own system of values. To Almásy—who places no value in the concept of nations and states—it is not at all unethical to help a German spy through the desert. Indeed, Almásy concludes that national identity is completely irrelevant in the desert. Ultimately, however, he suffers greatly for his beliefs and for his moments of passion. Almásy's enduring spirit and his firm connection between past and present are what keep him, the English patient, foremost in our minds.

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