The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
|June 1, 2012||Posted by Jane Lu under culture|
Of all the post-war books written, I would say The English Patient is one of the best novels from the modern era. Written by Michael Ondaatje, the book follows the history of a Canadian nurse, a Canadian-Italian thief, an Indian sapper in the British army, and an English-accented Hungarian man who is also known as the English patient.
The book is set in an Italian villa after the second world war. Hana is a young Canadian nurse who takes care of the English patient, whose face was severely burnt beyond recognition in a plane crash. Though his tags were lost, his copy of Herodotus’ histories escaped the fire. He claims that he is English, which gives him the name “the English patient.” Also living with the English patient is Caravaggio, a Canadian friend of Hana’s father. Caravaggio worked for the British foreign intelligence as a spy, making use of the skills he developed as a thief, but was caught by the Germans and tortured. One day, two British soldiers walk into the villa. Kip, one of the soldiers, is an Indian sapper. During his stay, Kip and the English patient became good friends.
The story starts its journey when Caravaggio doubts the identity of the English patient, and prompts him to reveal the past hidden beneath his mysterious and quiet façade. It turns out the patient’s name was Count Ladislaus de Almásy, and that he was actually not English but a Hungarian desert explorer. He feels, however, that he has no motherland; his nationalism was long ago erased from his life. He explored deserts with an Englishman named Geoffrey Clifton and his wife Katharine. In fact, Almásy is very sophisticated, and used his geographical knowledge to draw maps with the help of Clifton’s plane. During their time together, Almásy and Katharine developed an affair.
As the war broke out, Almásy and his team decided to pack up and leave the desert using Clifton’s plane. But it all ended in tragedy when Clifton deliberately crashed his plane in attempt to kill himself, his wife and Almásy as revenge for the affair. Clifton died, but Katharine fortunately lived, though she was severely injured. Almásy carried Katharine into a cave and immediately went to a nearby town to seek help. The British did not believe his story, however, and accused him of being a spy because of his foreign surname.
Almásy later managed to escape from the British and turned to the German side, helping a German spy to cross the desert into Cairo and avoid the Allies. After his mission, Almásy went back to the cave to collect Katherine’s body by plane. On his way he was shot down by the Germans, leading to his injuries and his stay in the villa, and leaving him in pain both physically and mentally.
Meanwhile, Kip and Hana slowly start a romance. The book ends with the Americans dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, ending the war. On hearing the news, Kip feels very much betrayed by the Allies, believing a Western country should never do such a thing to another country that is also white. Feeling both depressed and angry, he leaves the villa and never returns.
* * *
I flipped over the last page of the book, and could not help but look back at the cover with the neatly printed “The English Patient”. The words caught my eye like a burning candle in a pitch black room: the irony in between the words cunningly ended the story on a sad note.
In the novel, Almásy desperately tries to reject and wipe out his nationality from his life. Yet perhaps nationality is after all what defines each and every one of us. His identity gave him away, leading to his imprisonment by the British. Although Almásy is burnt beyond recognition, his identity is still given away and the truth that he is not English is discovered. In fact, no matter how hard he tries, he never escapes his own identity.
Have you ever looked into the mirror and stared at your own image? Have you ever fixed your eyes at your reflection and asked yourself, who am I?
Yes, who are you?
We can change the way we dress, we can change the way we speak, we can change our looks – but we can never change who we really are, where we come from. It is impossible to change our identity. In fact, when you think about it, our nationality and the culture we come from actually have great influence on what we do and how we think.
Nowadays, in this modern world with the aid of technology and transport systems, we are living in an ever more mixed society and we may not think of nationality as being particularly important. After all, it is no big deal to see somebody of a different nationality to us. Yet when we meet somebody we have not met before, we often judge them by their nationality, just as the characters in the novel identify Almásy as “the English patient” by his apparent nationality.
This reminded me of Thomas Schelling’s demonstration of racial segregation using his chessboard model. In the model, Schelling placed nickels and pennies on a chessboard, with the board symbolizing a society and the coins representing two races living in the community. On the chessboard, the nickels and pennies are happy to live together, but each race does not want the other to outnumber their own race by more than two to one. This leads to segregation. To make the races feel “comfortable,” Shelling started to move any coins positioned in an outnumbered situation of more than two to one, shifting them to the nearest acceptable location. As he continued, he found that the pennies and nickels eventually separated out.
Of course, this was just an experiment using non-living objects to imitate the world we are living in, and does not represent reality. Moreover, the pennies do not have any emotion: who knows if they are happy or not? This model might suggest, however, that unconsciously this is what we feel deep inside – deep down, we may feel a tiny bit of discomfort when we are with people of a different nationality.
Our minds are wonderful and interesting machines. They control what we think: sometimes we choose to reject parts of us that we do not like, and we often choose to push away thoughts that bring discomfort. We may unconsciously try to change reality to suit ourselves, or to change the way we present ourselves, either to make ourselves feel better or to make the world accept us. We wrap ourselves up as though we were a gift. But this is just the façade we are unconsciously trying to create, a cover that will make the English patient feel better.
Yet, is that truly who we are?