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The chapter opens with a brief discussion of the western world's history of involvement in the desert. Since Herodotus in 425 B.C., there has been little interest in the desert save for those old geographers who make it their business to explore the world and return to London to give talks at meetings of the Geographical Society. By the mid-1930s, there is a resurgence of desert exploration, and then in 1939 the desert becomes another theater of the war.
As Hana sits by his bed, the English patient tells her how he was a part of an "oasis society," a small group of Europeans who mapped and explored the desert. They worked independently, but the desert Europeans knew all about each other. They would meet occasionally between their adventures and explorations. In 1930, he went on his first journey. It was only meant to last seven days, but the sandstorms were so severe that they lost all of their animals and supplies. If they had not kept moving they would have been buried alive by the sand.
The English patient had continued to travel across the desert throughout the 1930s, occasionally meeting another Europeans but spending almost all of his time with the Bedouin people. He came to hate the idea of nations and nationalities, feeling that such concepts were superficial and caused only destruction. The desert rejected such labels and nationalities. Though some of the European explorers tried to place their names on the things they found, the English patient wanted to disappear. He wanted to lose himself completely and not belong to any person or any nation.
The patient talks about how he wanted to remain in one particular oasis, among the acacia trees forever. It was a place where populations had existed over the centuries and then had disappeared entirely, coming and going with the water. He compares a lover to water, the life force that one needs in the desert. Hana wonders who this woman is who has been the great love of her patient's life.
The patient tells Hana that in 1936 a young man named Geoffrey Clifton had heard about his expedition from a friend at Oxford. Within two weeks, Clifton had gotten married to a woman named Katharine and flown with his new wife to join their party in Cairo. The party, which had consisted of four explorers—Prince Kemal el Dein, Bell, Almásy, and Madox—was focused on finding the ancient city of Zerzura, nestled in the Gilf Kebir, a plateau in the Libyan desert. Clifton was wealthy and had his own plane, a convenience that would make their search much easier.
The party was initially surprised that Clifton had brought his wife, but the patient says he thinks they accepted her politely enough. There seemed to be a large culture gap between the Cliftons and the explorers. The patient's entire life revolved around things that could not be valued in a material society—history, latitudes, and events that took place hundreds of years ago. One night, as they all sat at the campfire, Katharine recited poetry to them. That was the moment that the English patient had fallen in love with a voice.
The patient adds that adultery is something that was never included in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Theirs was a love that was left out of the detailed reports.
Starting the chapter with history by Herodotus and threading quotes by the historian throughout the novel, Ondaatje connects the past with the present. Indeed, the past is of utmost importance in The English Patient. The past is the only thing the patient has left in his life. Even before his injury however, he had always been aware of the past and connected to it. He chose his profession because he knew that money and power are fleeting, just as civilizations are. He wanted to immerse himself in something greater, something that was immortal, and he found that in the desert.
Time in the novel is extraordinarily fluid, as days blend into weeks and overlap with memories and past centuries. Ondaatje employs this fluidity of time as a device to encourage connections in our minds as we read the novel. Situations past and present are interrelated and are used to inform each other. The illicit nature of the patient's love affair is mirrored in Hana's relationship with Kip. Past and present intertwine to create a larger picture of love in war.
The desert itself functions like a character in the novel. It is a living entity that has the power to kill, to bury, and to alter lives. Ondaatje writes that it "could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed." In this way, the desert extends beyond time, connecting people across ages with a shared experience. The patient has used the desert to lose himself, to shed his nationality and identity. As a setting for a love story, the desert is an empty and barren place, which helps us focus on the intensity of personal connections that take place there. At once harsh and beautiful, the desert acts as an intensifier, heightening the drama and the tragedy in human relationships.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The English Patient!