"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.