My review of the English patient by Michael Ondaatje.


“The desert 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…”
The same might be said of the characters in The English Patient. For this is a beautiful, artfully crafted novel about the mapping of identity within borders, set before and during World war two when borders were in continual flux and territorial conquest and possession were the name of the game. The narrative, like the abandoned villa in which the characters take refuge and the fateful cave where the paintings of swimmers are discovered (even the desert/sea boundary has shifted over time), is a construction of haunting echoes. Ondaatje continually brings back the narrative to memory, the most secret and probably defining element of self and thus continually shows us how shifting are the borders of self. Nationality, another form of mapping identity, especially in wartime, is another prevailing theme of the novel. Kip, as an Indian sapper in the British army, straddles another drawn line. He has never felt accepted by the British as a whole though he has two English friends with whom he feels very close – Ondaatje again showing us how history’s borders are arbitrary and can be individually breached. Nevertheless he will always feel excluded, as if detained by customs. Love, not nationality, will provide him with his most vivid sense of self – undone ultimately by another impersonal act of drawing lines. The English Patient isn’t English at all, he’s a Hungarian count, and his nationality too will ultimately exclude him from his heart. He himself pastes and writes his own fragmented history into his battered copy of Herodotus’ Histories. A contrast between the conventional narrative of history with its battles and leaders and shifting allegiances and personal history made up of secret epiphanies and tragedies of timing. Together with Hana, a young nurse mourning the death of her brother and Caravaggio, a spy, thief and morphine addict Almasey, the so-called English patient, and Kip take refuge in the Tuscan villa which becomes a kind of haven where they speak to each other’s private selves and are thus able to draw up truer maps of their individual histories, until the outside world and its insistence on arbitrary stifling demarcation lines once again intervenes.
Also has to be said that Ondaatje’s prose is as rhythmically mesmerising and inspired as Virginia Woolf or Don Delillo at their best.


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