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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.
Ondaatje takes full advantage of the possibilities of narrating in different tenses, alternating between present and past, changing tenses as he changes scenes. The novel uses flowing transitions to move from present action to flashback, mirroring real action and remembrance in smooth movement of prose. Such transitions and tense changes effectively put us in the position of outside observers peering into a scene. We do not know what has happened in the past and are not given any explanations for what we see, but things are explained to us little by little. Ondaatje's use of tense creates the illusion of a continuous reality, a past that is in line with a present—in fact, inseparable from it.
The descriptiveness and lyricism of Chapter I are especially notable. The account of the patient's burned body and the Italian villa are detailed and realistic. Religious allusions are frequently in these passages: the nurse thinks her patient's hipbones are like the "[h]ipbones of Christ"; the Bedouin medicine man uses his oils to "anoint" the patient, much like John the Baptist and the baptism of Christ; and the patient thinks the figure of the medicine man looks like the drawings of the archangels he had tried to copy in school. Christianity permeates the minds of these characters, though they often choose to put it aside to deal with the realities of war. The nurse, who places the practicalities of survival before her religion, uses a crucifix to make a scarecrow for her garden. This image of the 'crucified scarecrow' is in great contrast to the religious images that have come before it. While the former images heighten the tone of the events, the latter brings the situation back into reality, making a point about the place of religion in war.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The English Patient!