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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

Chapter IX

Chapter VIII

Chapter X

Summary

The English patient talks about "how one falls in love." He tells about the first time he ever saw Katharine, as she was emerging from a plane. She was too eager for his taste, and her husband Geoffrey, still in the flush of honeymoon, could not stop singing the praises of his new wife. After a month in Cairo, Katharine was more muted, reading constantly, but her husband was still young and excited. The English patient was fifteen years older than Katharine, and cynical about everlasting love. She was hungry for change, however: she learned everything she could read about the desert, and she grew up quickly.

Geoffrey's praise meant very little to Katharine, but she was charmed by the English patient's nuance. When she asked if she could read his Herodotus, he gracefully declined to give it to her, as his notes were in it. But he promised to show it to her when he returned from his journey. When he did return from the journey, which had been successful, Geoffrey threw a party for him. Before the party, he loaned Katharine his Herodotus to read as she pleased.

At the party, Katharine chose to read a famous story from Herodotus, but one the English patient usually skips over. It was the story of a very beautiful queen whose husband, the king, praised her beauty all the time. The king was telling a man named Gyges of his wife's beauty, but she was so beautiful that the king wanted Gyges to see for himself. So he arranged for Gyges to sneak into her room and hide in order to watch her while she undressed. The queen saw Gyges sneak out of her room and realized what her husband had done. The next day, she called for Gyges and offered him one of two options: either to slay his friend the king and thus possess her and the kingdom, or to stand there and be slain immediately. Gyges kills the king and reigns with the queen for twenty-eight years. After Katharine finishes this anecdote, which seems quite human and familiar, the English patient realizes he is in love with her.

In the months that followed, the patient and Katharine would be in the same company frequently, as they traveled in similar circles. She and Geoffrey were stationed in Cairo and moving in the circles of the city's society. The pateient would go to events just to see her, and could think of little besides her body, which became the inspiration for one of his books. Naturally, he grew more formal around her, as he did not want her to know of his secret thoughts. One day, at a formal garden party, Katharine came to him and said simply, "I want you to ravish me." After that, the English patient became her lover, and they would steal glances and touches everywhere. The only person they had to avoid was Geoffrey. However, Geoffrey was enmeshed in the circle of British aristocracy, and had a strong web of relations who watched out for him and would let him know if they ever found out about his young wife's infidelity.

Katharine became frustrated at what she called the patient's "inhumanity," his hatred of ownership, of identity, of being owned. She needed words to convince her that she was special to him, but he had none for her. She decided to leave him and go back to her husband.

The English patient remembers Madox, his best friend in the desert for ten years. Madox could describe his love of the desert in words, whereas the patient could only write factually about the environment around him. The two friends were different in many ways. Madox, for one thing, was entirely faithful to his wife in England. The English patient never knew for certain whether Madox knew about his relationship with Katharine, but he suspected he did. When Madox returned to England at the start of the war in 1939, he and his wife went to church, where they heard a very jingoistic sermon from the priest in support of the war. Madox took out his desert pistol and shot himself right on the spot. The patient reasons that Madox was a man who died because of nations.

Caravaggio gives the English patient more morphine, which makes him talk in a different way, as if he were outside his body. He talks about Almásy out on a dance floor with Katharine, drunk and making a fool of himself. Neither of them would back down until finally they both collapsed, Geoffrey watching from his chair. Caravaggio wonders who the patient is speaking as now, and watches him and wonders about him. The man who sometimes speaks of himself in the first person, sometimes in the third, yet never refers to himself as Almásy. Caravaggio asks the patient who was talking in this story, and the patient replies, "Death means you are in the third person."

The English patient remembers how he took Katharine from the plane crash and placed her in the cave. He took the colored sand on the cave walls around them and placed it on her body, transforming her as if with makeup. He promised to return to her and walked out into the desert for three days with no food, using only the stars and his shadow to guide his way. When he finally got to El Taj, the English soldiers surrounded him and took him away, refusing to listen to his story about an injured woman who was just seventy miles away.

Caravaggio asks the patient why the English would not believe him. The patient tells them it was because he gave them the wrong name: he gave them his own name, which sounded foreign, instead of giving them Katharine's. At this point in the war, both sides were looking for spies in the desert. The English just locked him up and refused to listen to him.

Caravaggio is still uncertain. He realizes he must break out of this desert that morphine has put him in. He asks the English patient flat-out whether, in trying to kill Geoffrey, he killed Katharine as well. He tells the patient, whom he now calls Almásy, that Geoffrey Clifton was no ordinary friendly Englishman. He was working for British Intelligence as an aerial photographer sent to compile information on the desert as a contingency for whenever that area broker out as a theater of war. British Intelligence knew about Almásy's affair with Katharine the whole time. They thought Clifton's death in the plane crash was suspicious. The English had been waiting for Almásy in Cairo, but finally captured him in El Taj.

Caravaggio explains to Almásy his own role in the war. He was a thief whose skills were legitimized when the war broke out, as he began work for the British and had access to British Intelligence files. Caravaggio says that Almásy had been an enemy of British Intelligence ever since the affair with Katharine Clifton began. They charted his every movement in Cairo and through the desert, and knew that he had worked for Rommel and guided Eppler across the desert. They had figured out the code that was carried in the novel Rebecca a long time ago, and they were waiting for the right time to capture Eppler. Then, after the German had been captured, they were supposed to kill Almásy in the desert, but lost him in his travels. The English patient listens to this story in wonder, surprised that his movements were so talked about by others.

Almásy then fills in the rest of the story for Caravaggio. In detail, he tells him how he waited in the desert for Clifton to pick him up, and nearly missed being killed by Clifton's plane when it crashed. He tells how he carried Katharine from the plane into the cave. Finally, he philosophizes on the nature of love and the importance of dying in holy places.

Analysis

The concept of history plays a large and crucial role in The English Patient. It is the book of Herodotus—itself a history—in which Almásy records not only his travels and explorations, but his thoughts about the affair with Katharine. Ondaatje writes that Almásy's "only connection to the world of cities was Herodotus." It was his habit to glue pieces of paper into the book "over what he thought were lies" and write in a map or sketch of what appeared to him the truth. The Herodotus book, then, becomes not only an ancient history, but a more recent history as well. It details Almásy's own observations, his own affair with the desert. History in the novel is not a static concept, but a flowing, changing force that connects the past to the present.

The Herodotus book highlights the possibility of multiple realities existing simultaneously. The geographical and cultural descriptions Almásy records in the book belie the existence of his affair and obsession with Katharine. Similarly, his clinical, sterilized reports of earthly features to the Geographical Society belie the majesty and emotion associated with gazing upon those features of the desert. One reality or description is no more real than another; rather, what is essential is the audience's choice of which reality to rely on and accept. Writing over the words of Herodotus, Almásy is literally rewriting history, choosing his perception of reality over that of his historian predecessor. In the same way, the audience must choose a reality when hearing (or reading) the story. It is not enough for Hana, Caravaggio, or Kip to listen to Almásy's stories and understand them in isolation. By connecting them to the present moment, relating them to their own lives, they change the history, introducing a new dimension into it.

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