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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje


Chapter I

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Chapter I

Chapter I

Chapter I


A woman is gardening. She feels it starting to rain, so she returns inside and enters a room where a man lies on a bed. Every four days she washes his burned body, making it her job to care for his wounds and make him more comfortable. She feeds him with fruit from the garden.

The nurse asks the patient how he was burned. He tells her he fell from a plane into the desert. Bedouin nomads saw him stand up, still burning, and emerge from the plane. They carry him across the desert to their camp and care for his wounds, putting a mask of herbs on his face and teaching him to lift his arms and draw strength from the universe. They do not know who he is, nor does he know them. Though he never sees them, he can tell them by scent and taste. They chew his food for him so that he might eat.

The nurse reads every night. Books are her window into another world, out of the cell of the war. She reads to her patient, but is not sure whether or not he listens. The nurse spends much of her time gardening, growing enough vegetables for them to eat, to trade a little, and to survive. They inhabit a bombed-out villa. In many parts, rain falls freely into the house. The German army had occupied the house and has left mines throughout. The nurse knows these dangers but does not pay much attention to them. She is only twenty years old and enjoys sleeping in the library, with its view of the night sky.

The villa is in an Italian hill town that contains one other villa and a monastery. The Villa Medici was were the generals lived; the Villa San Girolamo, which used to be a convent, had become the last stronghold of the German army and had housed nearly a hundred troops. The Allies turned the building into a hospital when they took over. The other nurses and patients moved to a safer location in the south, but this nurse, concerned for her English patient, insisted on staying behind. Though they have no heat or electricity, they manage to get by in the devastated villa. The nurse cleans out the villa and she feels safe there, though she knows there is danger of roaming brigands. She takes a crucifix from the church to make a scarecrow for her garden. She plays hopscotch at night to entertain herself.

The nurse picks up her patient's notebook. It is a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, with the patient's own writing, observations, and memoirs pasted into it. She reads of the desert winds that are known to destroy. The patient begins talking to her, telling her that the Bedouins cared for him and kept him alive because they suspected he had a skill. He is familiar with maps, remembers everything he reads, and knows the locations of ancient civilizations, lakes, and towns. He knows North Africa, and is useful to those nations fighting their wars on soil they do not know. The Bedouins bring him to a canyon and he realizes why they have brought him there. They ask him to reach out with his hand and identify the different types of guns. The guns are from many countries and all different time periods—a "museum in the desert." He shows the men how to match shells to guns in order to fire them. They cheer him on as he uses his skill to repay them for their care.

The Bedouins blindfold the patient most of the time, taking him to their secret towns and ceremonies. He has not been able to see for so long that he wonders whether the Bedouin dances are dreams or realities. There are no women in this camp, and he desires a young Bedouin boy.

Test Your Understanding with the Chapter I Quiz

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Who rescued the patient after he fell, burning, from his airplane?
Sephardic Jews
German soldiers
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Chapter I QUIZ

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Addendum on Count Almasy

by Desdichado32, March 18, 2017

One point in this analysis I cannot entirely agree with is the argument that Almasy places no value in the concept of nations and states. Certainly he believes them to be man-made and irrelevant in the brutal landscape of the desert; however, his value of nations changes once he is betrayed by the British. When they refuse to help him and in effect allow Katherine to die his perspective of nations changes. At this point nations do assume value for Almasy. He sees the Germans as the most effective conduit for revenging himself on the British.... Read more


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