The English Patient, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, is about ownership – how no one is content without a claim to love, country, or personal identity; and few can do without boundaries, perimeter, and the maps to delineate them.
Count Almasy, the English Patient of the story is an explorer of the Sahara who, like the Bedouins he has befriended, could find his way through the desert with no maps or no compass. The desert, a featureless waste to most, for Almasy and the nomads of the Sahara it was filled with signs and indicators of direction, water, and shelter. It had not been marked. There were no recognizable roads or pistes; only dried acacia bushes, rock outcroppings, dunes, and stretches of rock-littered quadrants of shifting sand.
The ancient Polynesian navigators, like the Bedouins, had fixed the position of the stars, tracked their shifting positions by season, and could set a course by them. The stars, however, were only reference points, and the navigators needed to track subtle changes in winds and currents, the behavior of marine animals and birds, and to derive meaning from clouds, rain, and approaching storms.
Both Bedouins and Polynesians lived in a world without maps; and while they had destinations – towns with markets, goods, and information – they were most at home in ‘uncharted’ desert and sea. To them the reaches of ocean and sand were uncharted only because they were never governed by longitude and latitude, mathematical markers which enabled countries to lay claim to offshore territory, fishing rights and eventual natural resources. The Polynesians and the Bedouins lived in a world without maps.
"I am a man whose life in many ways, even as an explorer, has been governed by words”, Almasy says. “By rumors and legends. Charted things. Shards written down. The tact of words. In the desert to repeat something would be to fling more water into the earth. Here nuance took you a hundred miles".The sparseness of the desert, its rare markers, and its signs which cannot be missed and words which cannot be repeated made sense to Almasy; and he wanted his life to be as rootless as a nomad, but as intelligent as they about understanding the landscape in which they traveled.
Almasy falls deeply in love with Katherine, a married woman whose sense of duty, obligation, and belonging to her husband prevents any permanence with him. He is drawn to and always returns to the desert; and she goes back every morning to her husband. She has shattered his perfectly ordered world, broken the reserve and he has challenged her notions of honesty and propriety. He no longer belongs to the desert; she no longer to her husband.
The Sikh sapper Kip joined the British army as an officer and was responsible for defusing the land mines and booby traps left in Italy by the retreating Germans as they made their way north. These and unexploded bombs made travel for advancing Allied armies impossibly slow. The Germans had designed these devices not just to explode on contact but to detonate while being deactivated. War engineers had disguised the electrical wiring, created duplicate dummy fuses, and built recesses and false pathways to fool British sappers.
To defuse a bomb, said Kip, was to understand the mind of the man who made it. If all the wires were painted black to disguise the traditional color markings of positive and negative charges, and if these colors were revealed beneath the exterior paint, how was one to know that the Germans had not switched the colors – red was negative and black positive instead of the other way around? Would the engineer have go to such levels of deception? Would such alteration be just as much danger to the bomb-builders in Munich as to English troops?
Kip’s work was as demanding, dangerous, and perversely complicated as any in the Army. Even after the war had been won, and Allied casualties were at end, Kip’s work continued. German mines had been laid everywhere and booby traps set wherever Allied troops might bivouac – on the door to a country house, to the pedals of a piano, on the hinges of a cupboard.
Kip’s enlistment was less a matter of patriotism than a moral conviction. The Germans were aggressors, and the Nazis were far worse than the British colonial occupiers against whom his brother had fought. Wars, aggression, and occupation would always occur; choosing sides was never a matter of right and wrong but only choosing between the lesser of two evils.
Hana, a Canadian nurse cares for the badly burned English patient and stays behind with him in an old, half-destroyed Italian villa as the rest of her company advances. She stays and cares for the English Patient in part because of love for her own father who had also been badly burned and killed in the war, part out of compassion, and partly to justify her presence in a brutal, unexplainable war.
Under the influence of morphine, the English Patient tells his story of the desert, his comrades, and his love for Katherine Clifton.
Because of his failing strength, the influence of the drug, and his desire to keep secret the worst parts of his past, his stories are fragmented. Bits and pieces of half-remembered events interspersed with lines from Herodotus, irony, and wordplay. Both Hana and Caravaggio who had worked for Allied Intelligence and was aware of Almasy and his liaisons with the Germans, listen to the English Patient. Caravaggio wants him to admit who he is and what he did and to atone for the torture that he – Caravaggio – endured because of supposedly Almasy-leaked information.
Hana listens to Almasy’s story and falls in love with him. – as much with his own love story, his love of the desert, his sadness, and his beauty as with the man himself.
At the end of the novel, all of Kip’s carefully-tended reserve is lost when he hears of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and in a violent rage he wants to kill the English patient. The incineration of two Japanese cities and hundreds of thousands of civilians is simply too outrageous, too absurdly inhumane, too intolerable. He leaves the villa, aimlessly heads south, and is nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, likely to have been an attempted suicide.
Hana, equally grieved about Hiroshima and Nagasaki - more because of the irreparable damage done to her lover, Kip than any moral outrage - returns to Canada after the English Patient dies, marries, and leads a comfortable life. Kip returns to India. The fate of Caravaggio is not explained. Ironically, of all the tortures the Germans could have inflicted, they chose to cut of his hands – the hands of a gifted thief.
All the characters in The English Patient are transients. They are all caught up in a foreign war of varying and changing allegiances. The English Patient is thought of as English, but is a Hungarian aristocrat and a German agent. His closest friendships are with the Bedouins of the desert, a tribe he never romanticizes but admires because of their austerity, strength, and ability to survive in a world without maps in a permanently changing and featureless landscape.
Katherine Clifton changes all that, forces him to reevaluate his arrogant indifference to anyone but the Bedouins, to realize that the world will always be governed by maps, and that ownership – the raison d’etre for maps – is common to everyone. Almasy dies without Katherine, without a country, and with his convictions gone. Katherine says to Almasy:
You think that you are an iconoclast, but you’re not. You just move, or replace what you cannot have. If you fail at something, you retreat into something else. Nothing changes you.... I left you because I knew I could never change you. You would stand in the room so still sometimes, as if the greatest betrayal of yourself would be to reveal one more inch of your character.Hana is a believer in ownership, maps, and countries. She writes to Kip for many years without a response, but once back in Canada, she will ever again leave. Kip returns to a soon-to-be independent India, but he is less attached to his new country, freed from the British, than to the very Indian concepts of family, place, and tradition. He is at least content to have such simple allegiances.
Almasy romantically believed in a world without maps and ownership, but he soon claims his right to Katherine. Love, he never fully realizes, has owned him. As Graham Green wrote in The End of the Affair:
The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.Katherine returns to her husband, and accepts his ownership of her or at least the mutual partnership of a marriage contract. She might not love Clifton, but has promised herself to him and cannot hurt him. When he finds out about her affair with Almasy, he tries to kill him, Katherine, and himself by crashing his plane into Almasy’s camp in the desert.
Clifton has been the only one who has taken ownership to its illogical extreme. He is enraged that Almasy has stolen his wife, and they all must die.
Almasy understood betrayal better than Kip, Hana, or even Caravaggio whom he indirectly had deceived. Almasy knew that nothing was the same in war – that love, morality, bravery, honesty, and friendship are all put to a very different and more demanding test. At the same time war freed one from convention, tradition, and propriety. Almasy says:
There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.Almasy is the most sympathetic of all the characters in The English Patient. He is a romantic, in love with Katherine, the Bedouins, and his idealistic but troubled colleague Madox. He was never a traitor – that would have involved allegiances, boundaries, nationalities, and ownership – but a love which he never anticipated or even suspected unhinged him. War unhinged him just as badly. He thought that love was less significant in wartime but was mistaken. The intersection of love and treachery in wartime is even more so.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.Almasy says this long before Katherine has changed his world.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.