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Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

K For Katharine: The Notion of Nationality in Ondaatje’s “The English Patient

Reet Sool


Notre communication commence par la comparaison de deux citations: la première appartient à un écrivain estonien, Mari Saat, l’autre à Michael Ondaatje, les deux étant, ce qui est curieux, semblables par une attitude hostile envers la notion de nationalité. Ayant fait quelques brefs commentaires sur les difficultés idéologiques de la lecture de la littérature occidentale dans l’ancienne Union Soviétique, l’exposé est concentré sur les noms et la dénomination dans le roman traité partant de la thèse de Martin Heidegger : la dénomination rend les choses à l’existence. L’absence initiale des noms, le mystère, l’incertitude entourant les noms et les identités des personnages principaux forment le noyau de ce roman autarcique

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  • 1 Mari Saat, “Sinikõrguste tuultes...” Alguspeatükke pooleliolevast romaanist. Looming 9 Sept. 1997, (...)

1“Ma vihkan rahvaid! Kaasa arvatud meid, eestlasi! Kui ma üldse tohin end eestlaseks nimetada? Aga see ma passi järgi olen, ja küll ma vist mõtlen ka kõige rohkem eestlase moodi. Sest eestlane on see, kes ennast eestlaseks peab, kes tõmbab piiri enese ja selle rahva vahele, kelle hulka vois kuuluda mõni tema esiemadest või esiisadest1 (...)”

2“I hate nations! Including us, Estonians! If I may, of course, call myself an Estonian at all? But this is what my passport says and I believe I think most like an Estonian. For an Estonian is the one that considers himself/herself an Estonian, the one who draws a line between himself/herself and the nation to whom a foremother or a forefather of his/her may have belonged (...) The reason I hate nations is because they want to draw lines! I bet they would draw a border to keep the wind off if they could, and would then sell air, or they would, for instance, transport polluted air to third world countries (...)” -this is what an Estonian novelist writes in the opening chapter of her yet unfinished novel, In the Winds of Blue Heights in 1997. To be more accurate, it is what the protagonist says, and I believe the two-novelist and character in his/her work should be kept apart. This is maybe easier said than done, in the case of Michael Ondaatje as elsewhere. Maybe in his case even more than in many other - we’ll see about that later on.

  • 2 The page numbers in brackets are to Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Toronto: Vintage Books, (...)

3“We were German, English, Hungarian, African-all of us insignificant to them /the Bedouin/. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations2” (138) says the English Patient, echoing Herodotus’“(...) people betray each other for the sake of nations (...)” (119). Had the Estonian novelist read Herodotus or Ondaatje, is The English Patient a novel about how “people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love.... (119), to quote Ondaatje qouting Herodotus? Yes and no. Yes in the sense it is this and much more, no in the sense it is not just this but much more. What strikes one at this point, however, is the way European nations have been specified in the above quotation (German, English, Hungarian), but the African ones have not - instead, they are lumped together simply as “African”.

  • 3 Ed Jewinski, Michael Ondaatje. Express Yourself Beautifully (Toronto: ECW Press, 1994), p.90.

4But before I proceed I should perhaps touch upon something quite obvious, namely, that there certainly exist more than just one English Patient. There is the film, or the movie, and the novel with its various readings, and the two are quite different. Without wishing to denigrate, the movie - meant to move large audiences and fully succeeding in this - was, to quote a very young critic, a standard Oscar-winning one, with breathtaking desert scenes and heartbreaking love. It was technically impeccable, almost too good to be true, and this was its only fault - its faultlessness, its ultimately being kitsch. The novel had been turned into a typical high-class Hollywood love story, the story of Katharine and Almasy, above all. The intricate ‘spy story’ of the novel is almost not there, probably for political correctness, in order not to mar the love, to spare the spectators the mixed feelings, for one is supposed to love ‘the right guy’ in Hollywood. In circumstances where video versions of films are not so easily accessible, watching a film is still very much a linear affair (no rewinds, replays, stops, gaps), determined by somebody earlier on-the script-writer, the director, the technician, the censor. I should especially stress the role of the latter in what used to be the Soviet Union, which is where I myself come from - all films, especially the ones that came from the West, were censored, sometimes very drastically. Also, the temporal, or call it historical, sequence of films was turned upside down - Lawrence of Arabia shown later than The English Patient, for example. With books things were more complicated in the Soviet days. Basically, you could not buy any ‘foreign’ books at all in book stores. That made it most convenient for the communist party. The inconvenience, however, lay in the fact that there were libraries, and especially, private libraries, and the fact that the so-called Free World was still there, although temporarily, getting ripe for the World Revolution, hence its demise. Until then, however, one could still get hold of books, there existed several illicit ways of getting and spreading and reading and translating books - with risks involved, but that made it even more desirable. Quite literally, to borrow a comparison from this novel, books were “the only door out of her /Hana’s/ cell” (7). Reading was dangerous, it still is, in a figurative sense, but this is beside the point here. It thus often happened that you could get a book for just one night and could read, say, just the first part of it, and a friend read the rest of it. This is how I read Orwell’s 1984 in 1981-which reminds me that one of the ‘harmless’ pranks of Ondaatje, according to his bioghrapher Ed Jewinski, was to feed Animal Farm to the pigs as a sign of his “rejection of didactic literature3”. Incidentally, Canadian literature is not well known in Estonia, nor is Ondaatje, and the fact that this film was based on a novel of his most probably went unnoticed. However, the book itself appeared this summer in some of the expensive bookstores but I had read it previously and made copies of certain meaningful pages (unlawfully, I am afraid) that I had some real difficulty in putting together again when preparing this paper at home. I reread it much in the manner Hana read the books to the Patient, with immense gaps in it, disregarding the plot, but making new discoveries as I was going along - in a manner that curiously suits the collage-like nature of the novel, the general postmodern feeling of the day, and Ondaatje’s work in particular.

  • 4 Stephen Scobie, “The Reading Lesson: Michael Ondaatje and the Patients of Desire.” Essays on Canad (...)
  • 5 Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1988), p.182.
  • 6 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 197 (...)

5 The English Patient is very much a novel about and upon absence, as Stephen Scobie has aptly hinted, in a somewhat different context, though, a postcolonial one, in fact, putting it beautifully: “Always already, there is only the post4 -.” As this is a phonetically very sensitive work, ‘always’ almost sounds like ‘Almasy’. But returning to absence which we have agreed is present, what is absent then? Names. Critics and readers alike cannot fail to notice this particular reluctance to first give the names of characters which somehow emphasizes the very significance of those. The lack and mystery of the name of the Patient is central here, of course, but it is also true of the names of the others-Hana goes nameless until Caravaggio (what a name) makes his appearance, having earlier concealed his own name too while in a military hospital in Rome, writing out his serial number only (v. pp. 32 and 27, respectively). The moment the name is uttered for the first time is decisive, but it is constantly postponed, which makes the first naming of it ever more meaningful, fatal, sometimes. There are traces of this tendency scattered throughout Ondaatje’s work, but it is striking in this one. Incidentally, in In the Skin of a Lion Caravaggio tells the boy who has helped him get the paint off him: “I don’t have anything to give you now”, drawing a prompt reply: “Remember my name.” “The kid grinned, very happy5.” Remembering one’s name seems a valuable enough way to thank one. Thus, what’s in a name? Would that which we call a rose indeed by any other name smell as sweet? We think in the language by giving names to things. Naming brings things into existence. “What is this naming?” as Heidegger asks6.”Does it merely deck out the imaginary familiar objects and events - “desert, sand, sky, fire, burning, in our case“ - with words of a language? No. This naming does not hand out titles, it does not apply terms, but it calls into the word. The naming calls. Calling brings closer what it calls. / ... / The calling here calls into a nearness. But even so the call does not wrest what it calls away from remoteness, in which it is kept by the calling there. The calling calls into itself and therefore always here and there-here into presence, there into absence. / ... / The things that were named, thus called, gather to themselves sky and earth, mortals and divinities. The four are united primally in being toward one another, a fourfold. The things let the fourfold of the four stay with them. This gathering, assemlbing, letting-stay is the thinging of things. The unitary fourfold of sky and earth, mortals and divinities, which is stayed in the thinging of things, we call-the world.” Names are therefore not arbitrary, they possess the power of their own, a certain charm - name tags are great charms among the desert tribes, we are told in Book II-“All pilots who fall into the desert - none of them come back with identification.” (29) But being named in this book also means owning and being owned. Katharine accuses Almasy: “You slide past everything with your fear and hate of ownership, of owning, of being owned, of being named. You think this is a virtue. / ... / (238) While Almasy, “the desert Englishman” (48) admires the beauty of desert names, which is to say, names in the desert, he claims: “I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” (139) Yet some other “desert Europeans” (135) in their vanity “wanted their mark there. On that dry watercourse, on this shingled knoll. / ... / Fenelon-Barnes wanted the fossil trees he discovered to bear his name. He even wanted a tribe to take his name, and spent a year on the negotiations. Then Bauchan outdid him, having a type of sand dune named after him.” (139) Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally at all, the possible prototype of the Patient, or, to be more cautious, Laszlo Almasy, an archaeologist and desert driver, a Hungarian nobleman but not a count at all, the author of a book titled “With Rommel’s Army in Desert” and the founder and first director of a desert institute in Cairo bore the nickname Abu Ramala, “the father of dunes”. The Almasy of Ondaatje’s book says: “But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. B y the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.” (139)

6Actually, as we see, it was not so easy at all, or to be more exact, he managed to erase/conceal his family name for a while, losing/burning his skin, though, and erase the name of his nation/nationality, but he was given a new one, a false one, instead - he became English, while being what he calls Kip and himself, “international bastards - born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get away from our homelands all our lives.” (176) This theme, hating the nations and nation-states, the very notion of nation, while loving/hating one’s homeland, at the same time striving to get back there, which both Kip and Hana eventually did, is one of the prevalent ones in this novel. It is easy in the desert to “slip into a name as if within a discovered well, and in its shadowed coolness be tempted never to leave such containment”, as the Patient puts it (141) but such containment stems out of love, not hatred. “There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own.”(140) Just like ancient scribes, the Patient, too, is mapping out his own story of love, one among the many countless ones, into the book of an ancient storyteller Herodotus, falling in love while Katharine reads out a famous tale of love - for us a legend, for Herodotus’ contemporaries, a story. It is said of Katherine that “She would have hated to die without a name”(170) “Kiss me and call me by my name,” (173) she implores Almasy before her death in the Cave of Swimmers. Namelessness in desert is frightening for her, since namelessness also suggests dryness and we know that “She was always happier in rain, in bathrooms steaming with liquid air, in sleepy wetness / ... /, being “a woman who had grown up within gardens, among moistness, with words like trellis and hedgehog. Her passion for the desert was temporary.”(170) The name of the place she died in, at least, contained the word ‘Swimmers’. It is said of Kip that for him “Harts and Morden and Suffolk were dead, suddenly just names” (194), could we conclude that this was why Katharine “would have hated to die without a name”? She was an upper-class Englishwoman, though, yearning for her green moist English garden and the rain-and her name. There is a lot of rain at the very end of the book. Kip and Hana part in the rain-“He leans to his side away from her, his face stopping a few inches from a rain puddle. A boy and a girl.”(288) Caravaggio is halfway across on his route “when he smells the rain, and then it begins to fall all over his body, clinging to him, and suddenly there is the greater weight of his clothes”. Hana “puts her cupped palms out of the window and combs the rain into her hair.”(297) Hana the Canadian nurse in Italy, a patient of the English patient, an echo of an English nurse Catherine Barkley in Italy (Milan, Caporetto, Stresa) of World War I in the novel of an American, an expatriate in Paris. The two poignant love stories of two Englishwomen (K for Katharine, C for Catherine) in the desert of war. Hemingway’s novel, too, ends in rainfall. “The English garden is wearing thin,” says Caravaggio of the Patient, “He’s dying. I think you have the spyhelper Almasy upstairs.”(164) In the face of death, though, Hana finds it no longer matters which side the Patient was on (165). All he will have after he is dead is his name, though he strove for anonymity. Katharine feared to die nameless, but since her name was no mystery, it would probably be forgotten (cf. Sir Robert Clayton /Geoffrey Clifton), even though she just disappeared - another absence. Note the omissions, the absences, of exact dates in this novel, too - at the very opening of it, in the minutes of the Geographical Society meeting of November 194-, London, and the very end of it, in Hana’s letter to her stepmother: “The year is 194-, What? For a second I forget. But I know the month and the day. One day after we heard the bombs were dropped in Japan, so it feels like the end of the world. From now on I believe the personal will forever be at war with the public. If we can rationalize this we can rationalize anything.”(292) (The sudden reference to Hiroshima is a kind of deus ex machina, handled somewhat clumsily, especially since it is supposed to be the climax of the novel. In this light, Kip’s postcolonial rage seems psychologically oversimplified and too straightforward.)

  • 7 Ed Jewinski, Michael Ondaatje. Express Yourself Beautifully, p.58.
  • 8 Ibid., p.118.
  • 9 Ernst Jünger, “Ortner über den Roman”, Werke 10: Stücke zu Heliopolis (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verl (...)
  • 10 Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra (Leipzig: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1930), p.338.

7Names, proper and improper, occupy a central place in this book. Names are no mere words then: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power,” says the Patient, and expands on the sounds of the words: “The deserts of Lybia. Remove politics, and it is the lovliest phrase I know. Lybia. A sexual, drawn-out word, a coaxed well. The b and the y. Madox said it was one of the few words in which you heard the tongue turn a corner.” (257) Ondaatje himself has admitted the importance of sounds in his work: “The sound of words was something that concrete poetry woke me up to at the time7.” A curious and sad confusion was caused in 1989 when the names of Michael Ondaatje and Ken Adachi, the well-known Toronto Star writer and book reviewer who tragically killed himself had been mixed up in the transmission8. Consider the sounds of the beautiful desert names and those of the English words - trellis, hedgehog, Canadian ones, too-Toronto, for example. All those words belong to the unity of this novel, indeed constitute it, creating its peculiar tone, the general Grundstimmung. As has been said, “Der Roman muss autark sein: das heist, das auf ihm der Leser wie auf einer Insel landet und dort alles findet, dessen er bedarf. Das ist ein Zeichen der Freiheit des Autors, seiner Souveräitä. Der Roman muss universal sein: das heist, er muss zur Welt als Ganzem in Beziehung stehen. Das ist nicht Frage des Raumes, da dieses Ganze nicht minder in einer Bauemstube als in Palästen sichtbar werden kann. Das Ganze wirkt eher atmosphärisch: man sieht, das die Personen, Dinge, Orte im Kosmos eingebettet sind9”. “The novel must be autarcic, which is to say that the reader lands there as on an island and finds everything there that he needs. This is the sign of the author’s freedom, of his sovereignty. The novel must be universal, which is to say that it must relate to the world as a whole. This is not a question of space, for this whole does not become less visible in a farmhouse than in palaces. The whole has a rather atmospheric effect: one sees that persons, things, places are embedded in cosmos” (my translation). This is very much true of the novel at hand. The things that were named here, “thus called, gather to themselves sky and earth, mortals and divinities”, to echo Heidegger again, this fourfold we call the world. “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent…” as Hemingway chose to quote Donne. Risking to sound blasphemous, every man is a piece of a nation, whether he acknowledges it or not. There is no man as such, an abstract man - he would be only a biological being then, not man at all. Nietzsche once wrote: “Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt10!” “The desert grows: woe to the one who carries it within him!” Did the English Patient?

8Thus, what’s in a name? Everything. Even the desert, which I must now desert.


1 Mari Saat, “Sinikõrguste tuultes...” Alguspeatükke pooleliolevast romaanist. Looming 9 Sept. 1997, p. 1161.

2 The page numbers in brackets are to Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Toronto: Vintage Books, 1993).

3 Ed Jewinski, Michael Ondaatje. Express Yourself Beautifully (Toronto: ECW Press, 1994), p.90.

4 Stephen Scobie, “The Reading Lesson: Michael Ondaatje and the Patients of Desire.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 Summer 1994, p.99.

5 Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1988), p.182.

6 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 198.

7 Ed Jewinski, Michael Ondaatje. Express Yourself Beautifully, p.58.

8 Ibid., p.118.

9 Ernst Jünger, “Ortner über den Roman”, Werke 10: Stücke zu Heliopolis (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1964), p.401.

10 Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra (Leipzig: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1930), p.338.


The Baltic Center for North American Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999

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