Tuesday, September 1, 2009

236. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

July 2009
History: Published in 1992.
Plot: Near the end of World War II, a young Canadian nurse, Hana, is living in an abandoned Italian villa with a severely burned patient. Hana had decided to stay behind with her patient, who was too fragile to move, after her hospital regiment moved on. Hana does not know the patient's identity, but she tries to piece together his story from his fragmentary hallucinations. She thinks he is English.
Hana passes her time by reading to the patient from the villa's large library, as well as cleaning, gardening, and perusing books by herself. The war has left her emotionally scarred.
The patient remembers crashing a plane in the desert. A tribe of desert people find him and tend his badly burned body. They transport him across the desert as they care for him. As he heals, he serves them by identifying European-made weapons found hidden in the desert.
Caravaggio, who knew Hana through her father in Canada, seeks her out at the villa. Hana had learned six months earlier that her father was killed in the war; Caravaggio knows of his death as well. Caravaggio, a former thief who worked as a spy during the war, tells Hana that his thumbs were cut off by the Germans after they captured him. When he wonders why they stopped at his thumbs, Hana tells him it is because the Germans were being forced to retreat from Italy.
A Sikh sapper (military explosives specialist), part of a British regiment, joins the group at the villa. The Sikh sets up his tent at the villa gardens. He is there with a sapper regiment to defuse the bombs of the area, which the Germans have left everywhere in the wake of their retreat.
Sometime after his arrival at the villa, Kip is working with intense concentration on defusing a bomb just outside the villa; coming upon a "trick" in the bomb's wiring he finds himself in need of assistance, and yells for help. Hana runs out and assists him, in spite of the danger to herself, until Kip successfully defuses the bomb. They curl up together, exhausted, in their very first moment of intimacy.
That evening, Caravaggio brings home a pilfered gramophone, and the foursome have a small celebration in the patient's room. Kip suddenly leaves when he hears an explosion; another sapper, Hardy, had been killed while trying to defuse a bomb. Kip returns hours later and finds Hana still in the patient's room. He crosses the room to be with her, snipping the wires of the patient's hearing aid so the patient will not hear them.
Told from the point of view of the patient, this chapter consists of fragments of the patient's past: he had been part of an inter-European expedition mapping the Libyan deserts before World War II. In 1936, Geoffrey Clinton, a young Englishman, joins the patient's company in the desert, bringing with him his new, young wife, Katharine.
Told mostly from the point of view of Katharine Clifton, this chapter is a series of short accounts of the genesis of her relationship with the patient: her dreams of him; their somewhat violent lovemaking; awaking in their room in Cairo to the sound of morning prayers. He, in the meantime (although he has told her to claim no ownership over him), grows more and more obsessed with her and more and more disturbed by having to pretend in public that their relationship does not exist. She insists, for the sake of her husband's sanity, that they end the affair. The separation is heartbreaking for both of them, but neither lets the other know.
Caravaggio believes that the patient is the Hungarian Count Ladislaus de Almásy, a desert explorer who helped the Germans navigate the deserts on numerous occasions. Caravaggio knows everything about Almásy because he had tracked his movement across the desert. Despite Hana's protestations, Caravaggio drugs the patient into a hallucination to get to the bottom of his identity.
In 1939, Geoffrey Clinton had attempted a murder/suicide by trying to crash his plane into the patient in the desert. Katharine was in the plane with him. He did not hit the patient, but Clifton was killed and Katharine severely wounded; the totaled plane left the patient and Katharine with no transportation out of the desert. The patient leaves Katharine in a desert cave and goes on foot in search of help. The patient is taken captive because the dessert is now a war zone, and he is thought to be a spy for the Germans. He is only able to return to Katharine years later. When he reaches the cave, he finds her body and carries her from the cave to a hidden plane. While flying out of the dessert, the plane catches fire, burning the patient, and then crashes.
Kip was the second son in his family. Although it was traditional for the second son to become a doctor, he enlisted in a Sikh regiment instead and was shipped to London, where he was selected by Lord Suffolk as part of a new sapper regiment. Kip was 21 years old when he joined the regiment, and he highly valued the intimate friendship he developed with Lord Suffolk and his assistants, Miss Morden and Mr. Fred Harts, especially because his experience with the rest of the army had been one of social alienation because of his race.
Kip tells Hana of the bomb that exploded and killed Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, and Mr. Harts; however, he does not discuss their deaths at all. Rather, his story concentrates on his own efforts in continuing Lord Suffolk's failed attempts to dismantle a new type of bomb, which he succeeds at after much suspense. In the meantime, Kip tucks away the memory of his friends, so as not to let his anguish disturb his work. He does not share his grief with Hana.
Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip lead a quiet and private life, together in the villa, with the patient. They bring a ladybug from the garden for the patient to look at; they play hide-and-go-seek in the darkness of the library.
Told in the first-person voice of the patient, as he speaks to Caravaggio during a morphine-induced conversation, the patient continues to fill in more details about his past with Katharine Clifton. He finds himself secretly falling deeper and deeper in love with Katharine, and after she had been in their company for more than a year, it is Katharine who initiates their affair by casually informing him that she wants him "to ravish" her.
The patient's story segues into recollections of his good friend Madox who had been with him in the desert for ten years. Madox returned to England after the war broke out and the desert group was forced to disband. While at church with his wife, during a sermon praising the war, Madox shot himself to death.
The patient shifts into speaking in a third-person voice about Almásy and Katharine Clifton in Cairo, leading Caravaggio to wonder who he is speaking as now. The patient does not ever admit that he and Almásy are the same person.
Almásy brings Katharine, injured from the plane crash, to the Cave of Swimmers, and leaves her there to go for help. He walks through the desert until he comes to an English base at El Taj. The English soldiers there take him captive, thinking that he is an enemy spy because of his Hungarian name. He is unable to return to Katharine until, years later, he begins transporting German spies across the desert. When he returns to her, he cradles her decomposing body in the silence of the cave.
Kip is in Naples in October, 1943, where a German soldier who turns himself in confesses that the harbor is wired with thousands of bombs that will explode when the city's power is turned on. The city is evacuated except for 12 sappers. They spread throughout the city and conduct the work of dismantling and re-wiring until the hour that the electricity is to return. Kip waits in a church until the electricity comes back. No bombs explode.
Back at the villa at the present moment, Kip storms angrily into the patient's bedroom, pointing his gun angrily at him. He has just heard that the United States has bombed Hiroshima. The realization of the injustice of the American and Britishled policies against the non-Western countries of the world forces Kip to question why he, as a Sikh, is fighting a British war. He walks out on the patient, on Caravaggio, and especially, on Hana.
Sometime after Kip leaves, but before her patient dies, Hana writes a letter to her stepmother, Clara, in which she openly discusses the death of her father, Patrick, for the first time. The letter represents a catharsis for Hana.
Years later, Kirpal Singh, now a doctor in India with a wife and children, sits and thinks about Hana, who is now in Canada. Hana, in her kitchen in Canada, knocks a glass from the cabinet. At that same moment, Kirpal Singh catches a fork in midair, which had been dropped by his daughter, symbolizing a metaphysical connection between Hana and himself, though they are separated by the politics of their nations and the physicality of their continents.
Review: Ondaatje is one of those writers who prefer to make their characters reveal themselves through ordeals, not ordinary life. This is a novel of revelation, and just as the identity of the English patient is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, so too are the inner selves and spiritual identities of the other characters in the novels. Nothing so explosive happens. Caravaggio admits he's in love with Hana. She develops a delicate passion for Kip. But the life of the book is in the desert, where the burned man had been an explorer before the war and where he had fallen into a destructive affair with the wife of a colleague. His stories aren't entirely believable, but they become compelling because the desert comes through with its oases and mysteries intact. You realize that it is not just the imagery, not the sheer magic of words that weave through the pages but the intense personal relations between the major characters that grips you, and you get convinced that this is nothing but poetry that is presented in a form of prose. It is almost as if the novel is an exploration of the way we understand things and discover the truth. People are always meeting in the dark, and the only way we can know them is through casual, occasional bumps in that darkness and through brief flashes of light. The novel finally succeeds as a celebration of the solitude to be found in deserts, dangerous machines, and unrequited love, and as a celebration of the impassioned individuality that seeks solitude.
Opening Line: “She stands up from the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.”
Closing Line: “Kirpal’s left hand swoops down and catches the dropped fork an inch from the floor, and gently passes into the fingers of his daughter, a wrinkle at the edge of his eyes behind his spectacles.“
Quotes: “He rides the boat of morphine. It races in him, imploding time and geography the way maps compress the world onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper.”
“Their bodies had met in perfumes, in sweat, frantic to get under that thin film with a tongue or tooth, as if they each could grip character there and during love pull it right off the body of the other.”
Rating: good.

No comments:

Post a Comment