“...he began to scratch her through the sari, then pulled it aside and scratched her skin-- as Hana now received this tender art, his nails against the million cells of her skin, in his tent, in 1945, where their continents met in a hill town.”
Perhaps due to prejudices from a half-remembered movie watched almost seventeen years ago, I was a bit tentative beginning Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, slightly worried that melodrama and preciousness might make for an unsatisfying reading experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Ondaatje's prose alternately simple and complex, his multiple storytelling point-of-views Faulkneresque, and the uncovering of the novel's central mystery, that of the missing identity of the “English” patient, worthwhile. It is a WWII novel in that the story is set in Italy in the summer of 1945 at the tail end of the conflict, but it is more of a character study, in which four uniquely different persons are marooned in a villa in the countryside, survivors of a devastating manmade catastrophe, not quite ready to return to the real world and its frivilous matters when so much death and tragedy has been absorbed.
A temporary makeshift hospital, the Villa San Girolamo is a former monastary laden with mines and the refuse of a brutal campaign: “It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war.” All of the patients and staff have relocated from the villa to safer grounds, save a Canadian nurse named Hana and her charge, a burn victim who survived a plane crash in North Africa, was rescued by bedouins, and who everyone believes is English, due, I suppose, his elegant speech and extravagant politeness. A family friend of Hana's, Caravaggio, an Allies spy in war and thief in peacetime, moves in, and later, a Sikh, Kip, a brilliant young sapper who, slowly, deliberately, defuses the many explosives on the villa's grounds. Alone on beautiful ruined grounds while Europe has finally stopped disintegrating, they comprise something of a post-apocalyptic family with separate responsibilities. Hana nurses and gardens, Kip scours for mines, and Caravaggio pilfers goodies like record players and vintage bottles.
Meanwhile, the English Patient, under increasingly larger doses of morphine opens up about his past-- he is something of a polymath and an explorer, mapping Egypt's Great Western Desert and spending weeks at a time searching for a lost oasis, Zerzura. A rugged indvidualist, at least, until he fell in love with another man's wife, Katherine. It was one of those passionate affairs that burn up and flame out, but only circumstantially, for the explorer was clearly smitten: “He feels everything is missing from his body, feels he contains smoke. All that is alive is the knowledge of future desire and want.” Needless to say, the affair never really fades and is the harbinger of much heartbreak including the terrible plane accident.
World War II Sikh Sappers
There is backstory to the other characters, prewar history as well as martial sacrifices-- Caravaggio's slippery espionage behind enemy lines; Kip advancing with the vanguard in the invasion of Naples, setting up makeshift bridges for armies to cross and sleeping under saints' statues in bombed-out churches; and Hana's abortion of a soldier's baby and her stoic nursing of hundreds of wounded (she has a beautiful tirade against the warmongering elite: “Every damn general should have had my job. It should have been a prerequisite for any river crossing. Who the hell were we to be given this responsibility, expected to be as wise as old priests...? I could never believe in all those services they gave for the dead. Their vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a human being dying.” And in the present tense of villa life there is Caravaggio's avuncular teasing of Hana; Hana's and Kip's playful, innocent courtship; a few drunken nights of revelry, with a record player and found bottles of booze.
A Bedouin of the Desert
However, the crux of the story's drama lies on the mystery of the English Patient's real identity. It is nearly always sensible to be wary of stories where the title character is bedridden. But the explorer whom the English Patient once was, is an incredible figure (literally-- so couragous, intelligent, and resourceful he is nearly beyond credibility), and Ondaatje draws out the unveling of his past in sparse, beautiful sentenes, remembered (perhaps dubiously) by a voice under the influence of morphine. The imagery is poetic, the observations acutely romantic, as when he describes walking into the desert questing for a mythical oasis: “It was as if he had walked under the millimeter of haze just above the inked fibers of a map, that pure zone between land and chart between distances and legend between nature and storyteller...The place they had chosen to come to, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry.” All the man has now is his past-- in his condition there is no future or even present. He says, recalling his fumbling of love, “I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in books.” But this is a novel in the romantic tradition and thus certain expectations must be met. Sometimes, then, the villain learns the hard way what it is to be a hero.