The English Patient: Nationlessness and Namelessness

Sometimes reading takes us out “on a walk.” For many years I had longed to return to the Egyptian-Lybian desert and to the hills of Tuscany by reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient (1992). About a month ago I was finally able to let Ondaatje’s lyrical storytelling take me on that walk. I have just returned from it.

When I read the novel many years ago, I loved the poetry in the narrative and I admired the nationlessness and namelessness that the desert represented for Almásy, the explorer:

The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by the winds, never held down by stones … It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. We left the harbours of oasis. The places water came to and touched: Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.

Gilf Kebir Landscape (Photo: M. Fontaine.)

Perhaps influenced by the film (Anthony Minghella, 1996), I was very drawn to the tragic love affair between Almásy and Katharine, two voracious, passionate lovers that destroy their relationship and each other by their own flaws–especially his erotic selfishness in wanting to possess her but not wanting to be possessed. I did not judge the characters: I recognized my very own human impulses in them. That’s why I was drawn to their story and continue to be. I still recognize their raw impulses in me. And I still find Almásy’s words on love and death enthralling and heart-wrenching:

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. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography–to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map … We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had not maps.

To walk upon an Earth not scarred by maps: this ideal reminded me of Thoreau’s essay “Walking” (or is it a passage from Walden?) where he describes going on his walks and being bewildered, even outraged, by farmers who put up fences to delimit Nature.

I still long for that ideal. I still love it when I find natural places to saunter without bumping into fences. And now, years after the first reading of Ondaatje’s novel, I am enlightened by a Nymph’s wisdom that showed me that our bodies are territories. “I believe in such cartography,” I reaffirm, thinking of our bodyminds as wild and free territories.

Paintings in a cave in Gilf Kebir’s Wadi Sora (Photo: Ursula)

Upon my latest sojourn in the worlds of the novel, however, I have found Kip–the young Sikh who falls in love with the English Patient’s nurse, Hana, in a Tuscan villa–most fascinating. In between both readings, I had watched the movie many times, so in this second round I was struck by how much of Kip’s character is lost in the silverscreen. His story is moving and tragic. A Sikh from Punjab, he spends the war dismantling German bombs and mines for the Allies, only to hear in August 1945, with dismay and horror, that the Allies dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. Not on Europe. On Asia. Having obviated English colonialism and decided to fight on the “fragile” islanders’ side, Kip feels the bombing like a devastating betrayal.

It doesn’t matter to him that it was the United Statesians who bombed Japan: “American. French. I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English,” he tells Caravaggio, the thief, while Hana listens. These two Canadians know that Kip is right: “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.” In his grief, Kip renounces his military allegiance, leaves the villa, and flees to the south of Italy and, eventually, to India. He will never see or speak to Hana again.

There are two tragic love stories in The English Patient: Almásy and Katharine’s and Hana and Kip’s. The latter one is the more devastating one to me, since it isn’t the characters’ tragic flaws, but their historical circumstances and their national and cultural differences, that bring it about.

Having read the story again, all the more do I long for nationlessness and namelessness in the desert, even the mapless anonymity of two territories that merge into each other in the wind-swept sands, under the starry sky.

(Cover photograph: Gilf Kebir Plateau by Ursula)

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