Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a famous novel, one turned into a famous film. Published in 1992, the novel co-won the Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. The English Patient is so famous, it barely requires a summary here: its settings are among the finest in the literature of the past fifty years – the Sahara, the bombed-out villa hiding in the Tuscan hills, and some of its vignettes (faithfully recreated in the film) are iconic: who can forget the penis sleeping ‘like a seahorse’ on the very first page, or the young nurse feeding her patient a plum she has chewed for him? Or the lonely game of hopscotch late at night, or the piano being played on its side in the rain-damaged library, or the Cave of Swimmers, found under a rock shaped like a woman’s back? I first read it when I was fourteen. I had been in England, a semi-foreign country, for a few months, and when I was asked where I was from, I had no easy answer, and found the question daunting. It was a narrow box I could not fit my family into. The English Patient helped me to reject the premise implicit in the question. It lifted the lid off my understanding of the world, and showed me what else a novel, and indeed a person, could be, and the metrics by which they might exist.
The patient of the title is a man whose organs are shutting down one by one after suffering full-body burns which have left him purple and featureless. He fell from a plane in flames into the Sahara. He was rescued by Bedouins, smoothed with a salve of the ash from peacock bones, and carried through the desert on a makeshift palanquin. His presumed nationality is down to him speaking English at a triage station.
He is cared for by a young Canadian nurse, barely twenty, who has effectively deserted her unit as they carry on north through Italy – she could not bear to see him moved, and the two of them are waiting for him to die. They are joined by a thumbless thief-cum-spy and fellow Canadian, Caravaggio, and, later, a Sikh sapper by the name of Kip, tasked with clearing the surrounding area. It is the spring, then the summer, of 1945.
Morphine injections are a formal device, allowing us to slip back to before the war, to a desert exploration expedition in North Africa, which flickers and pools silverly as a mirage. It is the prose’s pellucid sparseness that I love, its taut aridity and economy, its gorgeous soft-spokenness, the sense one gets that each word was weighed in the hand before it was placed on the page. Ondaatje once revealed in an interview that he still writes with pen and ink, and you can tell; you can feel the movement of nib on paper, its slow scratch and smudge. His novels remind me of Walker Evans’s photographs of tools, how they ennoble their subjects and impress their handfeel upon on the viewer. Ondaatje does such this with the smell of a dog’s paw, the defusing of a bomb, a blowjob.
The film, directed by Anthony Minghella, appeared in 1996, and is responsible for the plot being recast mainly as the love story between Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Count László Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), which takes place on the eve of World War II, against the backdrop of the Sahara and the souks of Cairo. It is an emphasis which has carried back across to perceptions to the novel, but to do so is to sell it short. Yes, The English Patient is a love story, and a war novel, among the finest examples of either, but it is also one of the best and most beautiful disquisitions to be found on the nature of belonging.
The novel is composed of texts which trouble their own reading, make us question the very aims and conventions of reading: the cipher of the patient’s burnt body; the desert, considered void according to European epistemologies; and the patient’s sole possession: a copy of Herodotus’s Histories. The latter is something between a commonplace book and a scrapbook: he has ‘taken cigarette papers and glued them over passages that were of no interest’, he has added notes, written in the margins, he has even pasted in ‘a small fern’. This is perhaps the text of canonical history, into which the minutiae and ephemera of an individual life have been inserted. It is the interface where different historical scales collide and interrupt one another. It offers a historiography for the postcolonial, though the term ‘postcolonial’ has suffered something of the same fate as the Argonauts’ ship according to Roland Barthes’s observation: an overly capacious term, ever-modifying while staying somehow the same, the best thing we’ve got for now.
The narrative’s presumed thrust is to solve the mystery of the patient’s identity – is he the Count Almásy, desert explorer and perhaps spy? But this teleology loosens, unravels, and ultimately defers itself. The world that Almásy yearns for is one without nations, where many different histories are allowed to intermingle; where provenance is of little importance.
Hana and Caravaggio have reappeared from The English Patient’s most immediate predecessor, In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a novel like a mural – or a fresco – of the immigrant lives and labour which built Toronto. The English Patient is not a sequel, per se, to In the Skin of a Lion, more like a pendent piece, or the second of two hinged and painted panels. In the Skin’s epigraph offers a clue for The English Patient and the modes it models: ‘Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one’, a quote from John Berger’s novel G. (It is also the epigraph of Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things, and reappears in a different guise in Ondaatje’s latest, Warlight (2018): ‘Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.’).
The angrily anti-imperial ending of The English Patient, in which the A-bombs are dropped on Japan, and Kip levels his rifle at the patient, shouting ‘When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman’, has been a bone of contention since the novel’s publication. Many saw it as an unnecessary politicisation, inelegantly tacked on to an evocative love story. But this, I think, is to miss the power of the novel entirely. While it is tempting to think of the novel’s North African settings as being staged for the white gaze – little more than the exotic mise en scène for an illicit love affair between two white Europeans – it also follows that the faded frescoes of the Villa San Girolamo are a backdrop from which the three non-Europeans turn away. Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio may revolve around the patient’s diminishing imperial body for a time, but then they scatter, to a world which has decreasing need of the English. They trouble England’s centring of itself in the history, now myth, of the Second World War. This may be the story told at home, but England no longer controls the narrative elsewhere.
The end that Fukuyama foresaw (The End of History was published in the same year as The English Patient) may well have ended up being not of history itself, but of a certain kind of history, the long drawl of a lone voice, history as monolithic myth, as nation-building force. History could be shattered, speaking in many different voices at once, simultaneously large and small, and its traditional teleologies could be renounced: no more lists of battles fought and won, but the anecdotal and incidental, the uncredited labour, the softer stuff which never makes it into the records, the ‘bodies we have swum in like so many rivers, manner of kiss’. These histories possess insurrectionary strength. They can topple nations, and the nations know it, which is why Ondaatje presented his treatise cloaked in a novel about love and war.
Photograph © Stefan Gara