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Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

Challenge in The English Patient1

Jacques Leclaire


Etude de l’utilisation et de la déconstruction du défi aux divers niveaux du roman. La déconstruction du roman de guerre fait d’elle l’image du chaos existentiel et du défi de la survie. Le mystère de l’identité du patient parodie le roman d’espionnage et pose la question des allégeances et de l’amour. Le désert offre une autre série de défis. La narration défie les structures linéaires jusque dans une conclusion ouverte. La nécessité d’inventer de nouvelles relations d’amour et d’amitié associe l’étranger et le familier.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992).

1Challenge may well be the founding myth of Canadian literature. Atwood’s Survival myth would be a particularly striking instance of the more general process. Many novels have been winners of the Governor General’s Award without being situated in Canada or apparently speaking of Canada. But a number of jury members whom I interviewed mentioned a sense of familiarity - apart from excellence - as an important criterion for their selection of a winner. Nearly all the winners make use of the notion of challenge which is mentioned permanently on Canadian TV and in Canadian papers. Its Canadian brand insists on the process of taking up the challenge against the most terrible odds whatever the outcome. The main achievement being the telling of the story, any success often being ambiguous and temporary. While bearing in mind the complexity of Ondaatje’s narrative, his permanent changes of focus, his complex shifts in time sequence, his intricate narrative stance, his subtle character creation, our main purpose here is to consider his use of challenge, which seems to be neither straightforward nor pure deconstruction, and with which the reader is ultimately faced.

  • 2 177-8, 182 sq, 191sqq,213-215, 274, 275.
  • 3 Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1929), For Whom the Bel (...)

2The challenge of war is in fact deconstructed; the novel takes place during the last days of the second World War in the damaged rooms and gardens of a villa in Tuscany, which becomes a metonymy of the scarred characters, and there are numerous flashbacks to the Blitz in London, to the intricacies and dangers of defusing bombs and mines, and to war in Egypt as well as the war of Secret Services. But The English Patient is not essentially a war novel. Some postmodern features can be traced in the arbitrariness of the treatment of war. On the one hand, minimal information is conveyed concerning the campaign; on the other hand, technicalities on bridge building by the sappers under fire and in water and mud, on bombs and mines, are introduced with a parodic accumulation of facts2. Such technicalities are used to destabilize the world of ordinary experience rather than convey information, and turn it into a fantastic world in which the most innocent-looking place or object are potentially lethal: picking up a book from a bookshelf or playing upon a piano are said to trigger up booby traps. Whereas Hana embodies the innocent heroine, Kirpal Singh somehow embodies and parodies the romantic rescuer. The main two consequences of the war are the necessary revaluation of ethics and new self-definition, which makes use of a stereotype in war novels3, and the creation of an isolated and threatened group of four characters combining Huis-clos, and a parody of the Canadian garrison mentality. The novel thus makes use of isolation, also one of the basic characteristics of utopia or dystopia, it moves away from realism and tends to become something of a fable.

3The challenge of the English patient is central and multiple. To begin with, Hana takes up the apparently straightforward challenge of staying behind with the deeply burned man and nursing him on her own. In a way she makes a separate peace and stays away from the horror of campaign hospitals: «Nurses too became shell-shocked from the dying around them», (41, 50). She takes up the ambiguous challenge of keeping him alive without really contemplating saving him, which however remains one of the possible outcomes. By becoming a recluse and attending the mysterious and conveniently unidendfied patient she is also trying to come to terms with her own father’s death and a feeling of guilt for not having been able to look after him.

4But the mystery of the patient’s identity reminds one of a spy story, only to be deconstructed into another form of challenge. Hana becomes emotionally involved with an unnamed patient whose vast culture often introduces intertextuality, and whose knowledge of England proves perfect and circumstancial. She believes in his Englishness and progressively falls in love with him, an ambiguous relationship with a father/lover figure (45). He also becomes something of the wise old man, he changes into one of the mentors of the other characters and voices some important aesthetic/philosophical remarks such as, “Death means you are in the third person“(247). David Caravaggio on the other hand questions his Englishness and he will eventually solve the mystery of his identity(252), with the help of their mutual addiction to morphine. The spy story challenge is apparently met successfully when the English Patient is identified as Count Ladislaus Almàsy. But the expected retribution of the spy story has then become meaningless. The notion of betrayal is qualified and can be seen as the desperate attempt of a faithful romantic lover to rescue his beloved. Guilt is no longer unmitigated and Caravaggio realizes that Count Ladislaus Almàsy cannot be judged by the code of war.

5The challenge of the desert, first in the search for the lost Zerzura (138 sqq), then associated with Count Ladislaus Almàsy’s doomed love affair with Katharine Clifton, Geoffrey Clifton’s murderous crash (172), the Swimmers’ cave, the superhuman journey against the desert odds and the obtuseness of the British army to fetch back the wounded Katharine, is a metonymy for the power of love and man’s will, for the ability to face a desperate challenge. The unearthing of the buried plane (174) and the final accidental crash (175) from which he was saved by a passing Bedouin (18) also illustrate the challenge theme: the Bedouins save him from immediate death because they need his knowledge of weapons. Ironically, traditional medicine and the use of magic prove more powerful than western medicine and can be read as a metonymy of the abrogation of western power. The mystery of the Count’s dealings with the Afrika Corps in order to infiltrate Eppler, the “Rebecca spy”, whom he, under the code name of Samson, may have helped to catch (163-164) is central for Caravaggio as it is supposed to contain the due to which side Almàsy was fighting on. This measure of indeterminacy is never solved, Caravaggio finds out that the Count had not murdered Katharine but that he had had to negotiate his knowledge of the desert in order to try to save her. It somehow parallels Caravaggio’s own story: he himself, had had to negotiate with his captors in order to save the remaining parts of his body. Their story of survival is not totally similar as Caravaggio is more likely to survive ultimately than count Almàsy. The novel is simultaneously deconstructing and reworking the feminist motif of writing the body, seen here as potentially severed into the multiplicity of its parts by victors (possibly a parody of the feminist vision of self as mutiplicity), and as a challenge of the victim to preserve whatever remains of it and keep it alive, which is a reworking of the survival motif.

6The narrative challenge of the English Patient: Egypt and his love affair in 1939 and later, war in the middle-east, parallel the situation in the Italian villa and the end of the second World War; just as those events had altered his ethics and his life, they have changed the other characters. David Caravaggio, a former romantic and not very successful thief, also a former friend of Hana’s father (40), Patrick, who has been killed in France (91), has seen his objectionable talent turned into valuable ability for the secret services: it turned him into a hero then a victim of War when he had his thumbs cut off (55). The highly detailed, almost sadistic and maybe parodic, depiction of this torture parallels the three dramatic climaxes of Kirpal Singh’s activities: the building of a bridge but mostly the two long stories of his neutralising two new types of bombs (191sqq, 213-215); “Kip”(176), the young Sikh sapper (aged 21 in 1940, hence 25 in 1945, 187, and 38 at the end of the novel), had fled from the conventional role expected from him by his family but eventually goes back to it and becomes a doctor after the war. He is the romantic figure of an exotic hero who confronts Death in order to save the lives of other people. He bears some resemblance to the archaeologists and explorers of the desert in his need to confront the image of his death in order to be fully alive. He both adopts and rejects European society and its values. He associates his traditional mode of living with European ones to the extent of cooking a European dinner on Hana’s 21st birthday (269); but the feast he has arranged (266sqq) is syncretic and the choice of forty-five parafine lamps in snail shells obeys the Sikh tradition of celebrating the year you are in. The Postcolonial challenge is made explicit in the final stages of the novel, when Kip, who has been risking his life for Europeans, realizes when the atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima that there is no benevolence, no acceptance in white and non-white relationships, that moments of apparent friendship or love are a fraud (282sq); yet he does not kill the English patient who is and is not English, nor Caravaggio, and years later he still thinks of Hana with the tenderness of sublimated love. So that the postcolonial theme is both stated and negated.

7The challenge of inventing new personal relationships is explored, first in a closed world between Hana, the English patient, Kirpal Singh and Caravaggio, but also more distantly with her mother, her late father Patrick, and Clara. The two central love stories illustrate such necessity and run parallel with each other: Count Almàsy and Katharine’s love relationship and Hana and Kip’s. They both challenge various odds: the “English net” (237) and war prove fatal to the first one whereas Kip and Hana have to overcome different approaches to the other. Their love is sensuous but often remains platonic, although physical relationship seems to be achieved. It is also ambiguous as Hana’s affair with Kip seems to be a metonymy for the love relationship she cannot bring to fulfilment with the English patient (270). They will finally be defeated by the overwhelming conflict of colonized and coloniser when Hiroshima is wiped out by the atom bomb. The challenge of the love relationship brings only fleeting felicity and ends in frustration in both cases but it also survives in a dream world which is freer and more sensible than contingency.

8The deepest challenge is not merely self-realization but self-creation. Hana survived “by keeping a coldness hidden in her role as nurse. I will survive this. I won’t fall apart at this.” (48). Caravaggio realized that “what she was now was what she herself had decided to become” (222) and years later Kip “still likes that about her” (300). For similar reasons Hana resents the English patient’s “mocking a deathlike posture... As if he was preparing himself, as if he wanted to slip into his own death by imitating its climate and light” (62). Kip also faces the same challenge: “He refused to believe in his own weakness, and with her he had not found a weakness to fit himself against. Neither of them was willing to reveal such possibility to the other” (114). Although he does not use mirrors Hana and he are reciprocal mirrors. Tenderness, attraction are temporary and they also spend long moments watching each other from a distance, the challenge being the necessity to reach beyond the surface image of self and other.

  • 4 London: Hogarth Press, 1925.
  • 5 London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1975.

9The challenge of an open ending forces the reader into Creative reading. Kirpal Singh, thirteen years later (Hana is thirty-four, 301) is defined without ambiguity: “He is a doctor, has two children and a laughing wife” (299). But such a definition only holds part of the truth, his real identity challenges the reader: where and who is the real Kip? Hana remains with him a romantic figure as a form of telepathic connection persists and he thinks of her in “moments of revelation,” “every month or two,” “a continuation of the letters she wrote to him for a year, getting no reply, until she stopped sending them, turned away by his silence. His character, he supposed “(300). The telepathy is confirmed in the last paragraph as Hana is seen dislodging a glass in a cupboard and at the same moment, “Kirpal’s left hand swoops down and catches the dropped fork an inch from the floor and gently passes it into the fingers of his daughter, a wrinkle at the edge of his eyes behind his spectacles” (302). The incident reminds the reader of devices used in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway4 and in Patrick White’s Voss,5 and it tends to authenticate Kirpal’s preceding visions of Hana:

He sees her always, her face and body, but he doesn’t know what her profession is or what her circumstances are, although he sees her reactions to people around her, her bending down to children, a white fridge door behind her, a background of noiseless tram cars. This is a gift he has somehow been given, as if a camera’s film reveals her, but only her, in silence.... all he can witness is her character and the lenghtening of her dark hair, which falls again and then again into her eyes.... She moved from being a young woman into having the angular look of a queen, someone who has made her face with her desire to be a certain kind of person. He still likes that about her. Her smartness, the fact that she did not inherit that look or that beauty, but it was something searched for and that it will always reflect a present stage of her character (300).

10Further ambiguity is introduced into the last but one paragraph when the perceiving consciousness seems to shift from Kirpal’s to the narrator’s:

And Hana moves possibly in the company that is not her choice. She, even at this age, thirty-four, has not found her own company, the ones she wanted. She is a woman of honour and smartness whose wild love leaves out luck, always taking risks, and there is something in her brow now that only she can recognize in a mirror. Ideal and idealistic in that shiny dark hair! People fall in love with her. She still remembers the lines of poems the Englishman read out loud to her from his commonplace book. She is a woman I don’t know well enough to hold in my wing. if writers have wings, to harbour for the rest of my life (301). (emphasis mine)

11The beginning of the paragraph could still be Kirpal’s vision but the last sentence and the underlined words can only be the narrator’s. The beginning of the final paragraph seems to revert to Kirpal’s vision of her as a receding Eurydice: ”And so Hana moves and her face turns and in a regret she lowers her hair. Her shoulder touches the edge of a cupboard and a glass dislodges” (300). The advantages of such a tantalizing ending are obvious. The sensuousness of the vision suggests unfulfilled romance, love that could have reached permanence, but the undertones of postcolonial diffidence suggest that such love was doomed from the start, at the same time as underlining how unjust it was. It also precludes a banal happy ending shifting romantic love into more or less successful domesticity, which would have been too much of an anticlimax, or into rosy everlasting happiness, which would have taxed credibility. So that the ending remains a challenge not only to the characters and the narrator but also to the reader.

12The novel is one of multiple challenges. The use is parodic in some important instances. Challenge is sometimes deconstructed but not always. It is often serious and parodic at the same time. But there seems to be no parody in the definition of selfhood to others and for oneself, and in the ultimate, poetic creation of mystery. All the protagonists, and not merely the English patient, are challenging mysteries but it is also suggested that the world at large, with its postcolonial heritage, is a vexing challenge. It may well account for the fact that in spite of the foreign setting, and of an unusual set of circumstances, a sense of familiarity emerged for a Canadian public, while other aspects attracted a European reader.


1 Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992).

2 177-8, 182 sq, 191sqq,213-215, 274, 275.

3 Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940),Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1977).

4 London: Hogarth Press, 1925.

5 London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1975.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999

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