I am resuming The Human Narrative Project, my journey of reading and reviewing 100 great novels. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is an excellent place to pick up the Project. What I appreciated most about the novel was its relentless pursuit of its characters. Even the non-linear narrative reflected this, jumping back and forth between the past and the present, trespassing the boundaries of time in order to understand the complexity of these subjects.
“Here they were shedding their skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others.”
The characters of Michal Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient were shedding their skins inside a bombed and wired villa as the Second World War drew to a close, the English patient being mended and tended by Hana, a Canadian nurse. The novel centers on the villa but jumps back to the past, relating how the near-past brings each character to the villa. “They could imitate nothing but what they were.” But who were they?
In my reading, the deep woundedness emerges from each of the primary characters. The novel is set amidst the destruction and devastation of modern warfare. What I appreciated most about this novel was its subtle ability to highlight the brokeness of each character without melodrama, psychoanalysis, or other methods that might distance the reader from the wounds, essentially putting their pain on display while at the same time keeping the reader at bay. Instead, the reader carries the wounds of each character throughout the novel.
“We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon an earth that had no maps.”
Count Ladislaus de Almásy is the English patient. He is independent and distant in his life. My sense of Almásy is that he hoards his self and life from others. He has the detached, escapist mentality of an academic, at home in the desert, the “earth that had no maps.” He is a conflicted character. The desert is his retreat, and yet there is a yearning for a world with no boundaries, a place without ownership. He wants to protect his own space, the boundaries of his self, be his own owner; but he also experiences the profound yearning to live without these boundareis and to relinquish ownership of himself to others.
the tension for Almásy surfaces most significantly in his turbulent affair with Katherine. He is passionate, in love with her, but he continually runs into the protective boundaries of his personality that keep him from fully opening to the possibilities of intimacy and love. This is, perhaps, the most essential terrain for human beings, our most definitive spiritual path. It is also the most damaging and damning element of modernity, with its power games of destruction and violence. Sharp boundaries and defensive nationalism have been the product of capitalism. We are defined more by wars over resources than we are by cooperation. Ownership leads us to create boundaries, when trespassed they bring war and suffering.
“There are those destroyed by unfairness and those who are not.”
The characters must cope with the brutal violence they have both seen and done. The novel refused, even for a moment, to allow us the belief that the characters will be able to move on, to put the war behind them. This is a critical difference between the novel and film. The film, in typical Hollywood style, left us believing that the characters were ready for the next step. The film closes with smiles and hopes. The characters, in fact, have already moved on!
The genius of the novel, however, is to portray human beings who will forever be changed by the suffering they have witnessed and endured. They will move on and live productive lives, but they will only do so by an act of the will or by shear necessity. They will never completely heal.
The characters cannot heal, but they can cope, and each person has their own coping mechanism. Kip copes by activity. “He moved at a pace that would replace loss.” By contrast, Hana was melancholic. “Whatever the trials around him [Kip], there was always solution and light, but she [Hana] saw none…Her inwardness was a sadness of nature.” Each personality struggles to come to grips with pain, to either engage it or run from it; whatever it takes to be able to move forward. The brutality and violence of war produces an inner wound that never heals. They surround it with whatever defenses are ready at hand. For me, this honesty was one of the most significant aspects of the novel. The characters will carry on, but not move past, the wounds of war.