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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

Chapter VII

Chapter VI

Chapter VIII

Summary

Kip remembers his training for the bomb squad in 1940 in Westbury, England, under the direction of Lord Suffolk, his mentor. As the second son in his family, Kip was expected to be a doctor, but the war changed all that. He volunteered for the army and ended up in the bomb unit. The work was extremely dangerous and the life expectancy was only about ten weeks. Once the Germans began bombing Britain, there were suddenly nearly 3,700 unexploded bombs in the country, ready to be tripped by unwitting people. It was Kip's job to help clear all these bombs away.

Kip greatly admired Lord Suffolk, and thought he represented the best of the English. Suffolk would tell Kip of English culture and customs just as if he were an Englishman himself, not a foreigner visiting their country. Suffolk was full of anecdotes and information, and taught Kip about western life. When Kip had first applied for the position as part of the bomb detonation unit, he was worried he would be denied because of his race. However, Suffolk and his secretary, Miss Morden, told him he had completed the problems so well and had such a good character, that they were sure they would offer him the job. Kip found himself welcomed into a little family of which he was glad to be a part. His skill and character won him a position of individuality, free of the "chaotic machinery" of the army. Living in the unit with Suffolk, he began to love the English and their ways.

Kip tells Hana about the moment he learned that Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, and four men in training were killed. He was in London working on a bomb when an officer came to tell him the news that they had all been killed when Suffolk was attempting to dismantle a 25-kilogram bomb. Kip was unbearably upset, but held himself together and pretended they were all still alive. The officer came to tell him there was another bomb, just like the one that killed Suffolk, and it needed to be taken care of immediately.

Kip went to attempt to dismantle the bomb, though it was the middle of the night and he was exhausted. He knew the Germans must have changed the way they put the bomb together. To figure out the secret, one had to understand not only the bomb-maker's mind, but also his character. Kip was excellent at figuring out both.

When Kip got to the bomb, the area was ablaze with the officers' lights. Kip examined the bomb and realized that he could dismantle it from its explosive material, making it essentially harmless. Once he did this, he set to work on figuring out the "joke" to the bomb. Eventually he realized it: the Germans had put a second gaine, a whole separate device into the bomb to make it very difficult to defuse. Once Kip realized this, he also had to accept that Lord Suffolk and his English friends were dead. Kip now carried the responsibility of defusing all the bombs of this type and teaching all the other sappers in England how to do so. He had not realized Suffolk's responsibility until that point. Such responsibility trained Kip to block out everything else whenever he is working on a bomb, and to realize what a terrible weight rests on him.

Kip figured out the new bomb that night. The second fuse was set to detonate exactly an hour after the first, long after a sapper would have assumed the bomb was safe. Kip wrote out detailed diagrams and explanations of the new bomb, and looking at the problem from another angle, was able to come up with a method of defusing that would completely change the way bombs were handled in England.

Kip was uncomfortable with the respect his skill earned him among the ranks of men. Because of his race, he was used to being anonymous and invisible in England, and he was comfortable with that. He chose to leave his duty in England and travel on ship with a hundred other sappers to Italy, where he could be comfortable with his invisibility once more. Kip had built up emotional defenses in England, and it was not so easy for him to take them down.

Kip remembers his family at home. His brother had been the one who courted confrontation, who refused to give into anything that implied English domination. Kip's brother was put in prison and remained there for a long time. Though Kip admired his brother, he knew he would be different, as he hated confrontation and searched for effective means around it. Kip would stand still, invisible, until he was allowed to do whatever he wanted. He joined the army in his brother's place. His brother was not upset, and was confident that Kip possessed the trick of survival.

The chapter closes with Kip remembering his sapper test, the time Lord Suffolk watched him as he defused a bomb on the famous chalk horses on the hills of Westbury. Miss Morden had been so nice to him, bringing him refreshments without fear of her own safety. But now she was gone.

Analysis

Through Kip, Ondaatje further explores the idea of nationality and the quality of being "nationless." The English patient tells Kip that the two of them get along so well because they are both "international bastards"—men born in one place who choose to live in another. Unlike his brother, Kip embraces the western world, and especially the English. He sings Western music, wears Western clothes, and makes it his job to defuse bombs in order to save English lives. Far from being "nationless," Kip has strongly attached himself to the English nation, and knows he could never imagine doing the same job for the Germans.

Much of Kip's goodwill toward the English emerges from his experience with Lord Suffolk and his staff. Suffolk is astute enough to recognize Kip's skill and character, and thus not only trains him in bomb defusing, but also welcomes him into the "family," even taking him to see Peter Pan when he wanted to. Kip is touched by the fact that this "true English gentleman" would look past his race and take him under his wing. It becomes evident that Kip feels closer to his English family than to his Indian one. Though he talks sadly about his mentor Lord Suffolk and his premature demise, he seems relatively nonchalant about the fate of his Indian family. When Hana asks if Kip's father is still alive, he replies as if it is not much concern to him: "Oh, yes. I think. I've not had letters for some time. And it is likely that my brother is still in jail."

Kip's experience highlights the fallacy of being "nationless." Though he is born of a different nation—albeit part of the British empire—Kip finds a nation to which he attaches himself both in nature and in action. Such an understanding of Kip's connection to a nation sheds light on the English patient's connection to his own nation, as the patient himself invites this comparison. The patient has left his European home and joined the nation that is the desert. There, like Kip, he has found his skills were most useful, and feels able to erase his past so that he may be known and valued for what he has to offer the people of his new nation, the desert. Escaping one's nation, then, becomes a larger metaphor for escaping one's past, and creating a new identity: one that is based on personal character.

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