"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 "
This passage from the minutes of the Geographical Society meeting of November 194-, serves as the novel's epigraph. In his acknowledgments, Ondaatje notes that some of the characters in the book are based on actual historical figures, but stresses that the story and the portraits of the characters are fictional. As a work of historical fiction, The English Patient draws on the occurrence of the actual tragedy that beset the Cliftons. This excerpt from the minutes of the Geographical Society emphasizes a part of the true historical basis for the novel.
More importantly, though, this excerpt draws attention to the multiple realities, or versions of reality, which exist in the novel. Most of what occurred in the desert was reported to the Geographical Society. News of new discoveries, descriptions of geographical features, and the specifics of desert topography were all clearly reported for the benefit of other geographers. However, the passage above is brief and superficial, which highlights the fact that official reports and history books often omit many stories, emotions, and truths related to the topics they purport to cover. Though in real life the deaths of Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton may have been a mystery, Ondaatje crafts an entire novel around what may have happened to them. The number of possibilities that lie below this brief excerpt are endless. In this sense, the passage perfectly illustrates a recurring theme in the novel: history books—or Geographical Society minutes—do not tell the entire truth.
The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East . All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.
This passage, narrated by Almásy (the English patient) in Chapter IV, describes his view of the desert. To Almásy, the desert is not only a place, it is an entity with qualities and characteristics all its own. It has tremendous power not only to erase identity, but to transcend time. In the desert, Almásy feels more connected to the ancient people who came before him than anywhere else in the world. He knows that he has seen and experienced the same desert that ancient peoples made their home. The desert also gains its mystique from its inability to be claimed or owned. Though centuries of people have tried to mark it off and name specific parts after themselves, Almásy realizes that such a measure is foolish. The desert, which is immortal, transcends any one claim on it.
The desert plays an important function in the novel, not only as a backdrop for action but also as a significant entity in itself. Open, barren, and empty, the blank geography of the desert highlights the foolishness of war between nations. In the desert, Almásy notes, "all of us wished to remove the clothing of our countries." When men are up against such a harsh enemy as the vast nature of the desert, the different ethnicities among them become meaningless. Living in the desert helps Almásy to realize this, and thus shape his own view of the world.
A novel is a mirror walking down a road Many books open with an author's assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat. When she begins a book, she enters through stilted doorways into large courtyards.
This quotation, found in Chapter III, is narrated in part by Hana. Reading is a motif which is found throughout The English Patient: reading not only helps the characters escape from their wartime situation, but also helps them bring order to their chaotic lives and draws the characters closer together. Hana and Almásy, who are initially uncomfortable with each other, grow closer as she reads to him in bed.
In this passage we see the narrator's own philosophy of the novel. Just as George Eliot suggested that the novel was a "mirror held up to society," so Ondaatje seems to suggest that the novel is a "mirror walking down a road." He clearly wants to reflect the reality of life and war, but the process of doing so is not a smooth one. It involves starts, stops, bumps, memories, and glimpses of the past in an attempt to successfully convey a truth. Unlike a history book, there is no assurance of chronology or order. A novel commences "with hesitation or chaos." Just as Hana enters into her "stilted doorways into large courtyards," so do we, as readers of this novel, enter into the story of the English patient.
The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil, had the look of a besieged fortress, the limbs of most of the statues blown off during the first days of shelling. There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were further rooms In spite of the burned earth, in spite of the lack of water. Someday there would be a bower of limes, rooms of green light.
This passage, seen through Hana's eyes, is found in Chapter II of the novel. It describes the Villa San Girolamo, the house in which Hana and Almásy lived. The building was originally used as a convent, protecting its inhabitants "from the flesh of the devil." But now, ironically, whole pieces of the villa are blown away, leaving the inhabitants inside largely unprotected. Nevertheless, the villa remains a type of "holy place." The narrator notes that "there seemed little demarcation between house and landscape." Such an organic image is symbolically important to the novel: straddling the line between house and landscape, building and earth, the villa represents both death and rebirth. War has destroyed the villa, leaving huge holes in walls and ceilings. Nature, however, has returned to fill these holes, replacing absence with life. Such an image reflects the spiritual death and rebirth of the villa's inhabitants, the way they learn to live again after the emotional destruction of war.
Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone. She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.
This passage, found at the beginning of Chapter I, describes the way Hana cares for the burned English patient. Like many passages in the novel, it is replete with body imagery. The style is excruciatingly descriptive, forcing to us to visualize the unpleasant image of the burned body. It is Almásy's body, the pain of his burns, that ties him to the present moment and connects him to Hana. Without this black body, or what is left of it, he would exist only in the past, merely part of a larger history.
Here we see that Hana imposes religious imagery on the blank screen that is her patient's body. She thinks of his "[h]ipbones of Christ," and views him as her "despairing saint." These ideas heighten Hana's own position in the world and in her mind. If the English patient is great and noble, a saint of suffering, then her status is elevated in her caring for him.