The English Patient

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DEADLINE: 24/08/08



Nationhood – a constraint on people’s identity and relationships

The English Patient, written by Michael Ondaatje in 1992, is a historical-fiction novel, defined also as historiographic metafiction. Its tone is “reflective and poetic” (Schonmuller, B., 2008:13) and one of its major themes is nationality and identity. The narrative is an account of the gradually revealed histories of four people living in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. The characters are the mysterious and critically burned English patient of the title, a Canadian army nurse called Hana, David Caravaggio, an Italian thief, and an Indian sapper, nicknamed Kip, belonging to the British Army. Each of them is far away from home, displaced by the war, and though they come from different and conflicting countries, they are able to live together in the villa and get on well in spite of their national and cultural differences.

The English Patient focuses on the personal experiences of war of the four main characters, who have been deeply wounded by a conflict based on national divisions (Woodcock, J., 2006: 51). It also explores the effort of the characters, particularly that of the patient and of Kip, to transcend the constrictions of nationhood. However, they are ultimately helpless and unable to do so because of the greater power of politics, government, and the war that surrounds them, which shatter their belief that a person can be separated from his or her nationality.

In the novel, Ondaatje uses several motifs and symbols that contribute to develop the issue of nationhood and its impact on people’s identity and relationships. The war, the desert and the abandoned villa, the maps, together with symbols like the patient’s burned body and the atomic bomb dropped on Japan, all help to explain and demonstrate the devastating consequences of disuniting humankind because of their national origins. (Schonmuller, B., 2008:13)

The identity of the patient is the mystery around which the novel revolves. “Everyone assumes he is English because of his refined speech and mannerisms.” (Ha, K., 2001: 52), but this is just a hypothesis as he is unrecognisable and lacks any identification. Later in the novel and through the patient’s fragmented memories, the irony of the book is revealed: the English patient is not, in fact, English. Actually, he is called Almásy and is Hungarian by birth, having been in the past a desert explorer and map-maker, part of the National Geographical Society expedition to map the Libyan Desert. It is there, in the desert, where he realises that people are not defined by their nation; rather, they are changing and indefinable as the desert. And this is how the patient comes to believe that people should be and live without borders and boundaries, free without the constructed limitations of nations. After that, he longs to create an identity completely separate from nationality.

“Looking for Zerzura (…) Just the Bedouin and us (…) There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African – all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 147)

Almásy worked in the desert with a team of people from different countries, and nationality did not get in the way of friendship for those men. To the patient, his family and his nationality became completely irrelevant. In the desert – and latter in the Italian villa – he found an oasis where he was able to connect to others without his family’s identity and his nationality getting in the way.  “Almásy has a desire to return to a “pure” state like that of the desert in which his “self” is not marked by nationality, race, and other social frames which limit, label and frame him. Almásy’s love for the desert reveals his wish to live in similar conditions.” (Abu Baker, A., 2008: 44)

“The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed (…) All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith (…) Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 147-8)

Like the desert, the villa becomes a place where there are no borders, as people from different areas of the world live happily and in harmony, but also because in it the inside is out and the outside comes in. “There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 45) This representation of the place supports the patient’s claim that there ought not to be borders, as “they are reasons for international conflicts and wars, and they stop people from assimilating.” (Abu Baker, A., 2008: 46)

Another paradox is found in The English Patient. It is the fact that Almásy used to be a map-maker, and maps give places names, identifying them with a particular country. Maps, in the way they are represented in the novel, act in the same way as nationhood does over individuals, limiting their freedom and shaping their identity. “A map is a form of order, control, and deconstruction.” (Abu Baker, A., 2008: 45) In addition, map-making is a contributing factor in the processes of colonization and hegemony. Through the use of maps, Ondaatje is criticising “colonization and its geographical and imperial concerns.” (Younis, R.A., 1998: 49)

The burned body of the English patient is of great importance to the novel, too. Through the fire he has lost his identity; thus, his body symbolises a nationless, borderless world, and he comes to be like the desert. “In any case, the differences between the nations (Germany, Britain, Hungary) dissolve in the patient’s expressionless and faceless countenance.” (Younis, R.A., 1998: 48)

Ondaatje also narrates the intensive and ultimate tragic love affair between Almásy and Katharine Clifton, wife of one of the members of the desert exploration team. The patient’s hatred for nations is even more heightened due to his inability, by virtue of his name, to save his beloved from death. After a plane crash, Katharine was severely injured and Almásy crossed the desert in search of help. British troops found him and, assuming he was an enemy because of his non-English name, took him prisoner for three years. Katharine finally died. This episode is the definitive reason why he renounces his identity. Even at one moment when he is telling his story with Katharine to Caravaggio, he speaks in the third person, leading the thief to wonder who he is speaking as now.

“[Caravaggio] is still amazed at the clarity of discipline in the man, who speaks sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third person, who still does not admit that he is Almásy.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 262)

Kip, whose real name is Kirpal Singh, is other of the characters in the book concerned with the problem of nationality. He is a Sikh from India, which, at the time of the novel, is a colony of Britain. As the second child in his family, and according to the Indian tradition, he would become a doctor, while the elder son would join the British army. Nevertheless, his elder brother is an Indian nationalist and strongly anti-Western, so he rejected to join the military. Therefore, it is Kip who joined it, and he did so willingly, though he was aware of his brown skin and of the restrictions it may bring about. “He sensed he would be admitted easily if it were not for his race.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 200) “A brown man in a white nation, Kip has grown emotionally detached, aware that people will not always react positively to him.” (Schonmuller, B., 2008:16)

Kip, in fact, met some discrimination in the army. But, luckily, he was trained to be a sapper by Lord Suffolk, an English gentleman, who became not only Kip’s mentor but also a father figure to him, teaching him the English culture. “He was introducing the customs of England to the young Sikh as if it was a recently discovered culture.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 196) And Kip “was beginning to love the English.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 202) Lord Suffolk made the sapper part of his family, accepting him completely and valuing his character and his great abilities, in complete disregard of his Indian origins and his darker complexion. “Lord Suffolk was the best of the English, [Kip] later told Hana.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 197)

After the death of Suffolk and his team, Kip goes to Italy and there he meets Hana and the other “westerners” of the villa. There he feels welcomed; he has again found people who do not judge him for the colour of his skin. However, “deep down Kip is uncomfortable with his own race, and has never been comfortable being part of a culture that was subservient to the English.” (Chainani, S., 2007: 28) The sapper and Hana become lovers. She falls in love with his long dark hair and his brownish skin. Nonetheless, they are finally separated due to the war and their nationalities. The young man also gets on very well with the English patient, who tells Hana:

“Kip and I are both 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. Though Kip doesn’t recognize that yet. That’s why we get on so well together.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 188-9) 

In fact, the four main characters of the novel could be considered as “international bastards”, since all of them were born in a place but are now living in another country. Hana and Caravaggio are from Canada, the patient is Hungarian, Kip is Indian, and the four are living in Italy. Each of them deals with his or her nationality in different ways, but, anyway, sometimes they feel torn by the fact of being “foreigners”.

The novel ends with the separation of the characters due to war, which is always caused by jealousy and hatred between nations.  It is ironic that, although they came to live together thanks to World War II, they are finally disunited by it, because the evils of war are more powerful. When Kip hears news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan, he becomes enraged, as the incident is part of an American and British plan against a non-Western country. He feels deceived and betrayed by the Western world which he had tried so hard to assimilate and which he has protected, risking his own life doing so.

“My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said. Never shake hands with them (…) What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 302-3)

The sapper comes to the conclusion that the West can never reconcile with the East, and that “they would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.” (Ondaatje, M., 1994: 304) Afterwards, he threatens to kill the English patient, who is, for him, the representative of the West. But he does not, he just leaves the villa forever and returns to his country to become a doctor and form a family.

At the end of the novel, the reader realises that it does not matter how much the characters try to get away from who they really are, they know they can not do that forever. Wars are the result of the disunion and disagreement between nations; and nationhood exerts great power upon individuals, labelling them as belonging to a specific race, culture, nation, thus interfering in people’s relationships. Consequently, “nations are deforming – because they corrupt individual identity by involving it in the illusory construct of nationalism; and because this collective idea of nations, the illusion that they can be permanent and possessors of the absolute truth, inevitably leads to both large scale human destruction and the betrayal of individual lives.” (O’Dea, G., 2006: 38)

Word Count: 2051


  • Abu Baker, Ahmad M.S. “Maps in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” June 2nd, 2008. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Ha, Kelvin. “The English Patient. Brief Flashes of Lightning”. June 26th, 2001. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • O’Dea, Gregory. “Nationality and Textuality in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” May 9th, 2006. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Ondaatje, Michael (1992). The English Patient. Bloomsbury (1994). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: London.

  • Orlowski, Victoria. “Metafiction” (1996). Emory University Home Page. Date accessed: August 2nd, 2008. <>

  • Schonmuller, Beth. “SparkNote on The English Patient.” Barnes & Noble Home Page.  April 12th, 2008. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Soman Chainani (2007). “ClassicNote on The English Patient”. Gradesaver: Classicnotes Literature Study Guides. July 10th, 2007.  Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • Wei, Angela. “Historiographic Metafiction: ‘The Pastime of Past Time’” April 11th, 1998. Date accessed: August 2nd, 2008.


  • Woodcock, John A. “Literature Annotations: Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient”. April 23rd, 1997. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • Younis, Raymond A. “Nationhood and decolonization in The English Patient.” (1998). Date accessed: August 19th, 2008.



  • Abu Baker, Ahmad M.S. “Maps in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” June 2nd, 2008. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Javet, Marie. “Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient.” September 4th, 2002. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • Ha, Kelvin. “The English Patient. Brief Flashes of Lightning”. June 26th, 2001. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • O’Dea, Gregory. “Nationality and Textuality in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” May 9th, 2006. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Ondaatje, Michael (1992). The English Patient. Bloomsbury (1994). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: London.

  • Orlowski, Victoria. “Metafiction” (1996). Emory University Home Page. Date accessed: August 2nd, 2008. <>

  • Schonmuller, Beth. “SparkNote on The English Patient.” Barnes & Noble Home Page. April 12th, 2008. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008.


  • Soman Chainani (2007). “ClassicNote on The English Patient”. Gradesaver: Classicnotes Literature Study Guides. July 10th, 2007.  Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • Wei, Angela. “Historiographic Metafiction: ‘The Pastime of Past Time’” April 11th, 1998. Date accessed: August 2nd, 2008.


  • Woodcock, John A. “Literature Annotations: Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient”. April 23rd, 1997. Date accessed: July 9th, 2008. <>

  • Younis, Raymond A. “Nationhood and decolonization in The English Patient.” (1998). Date accessed: August 19th, 2008.





Although implicit in many other types of tichonal works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction.  In 1970, William H. Gass wrote an essay in which he dubbed the novel's self-reflexive tendency "metafiction" (Waugh 2). Critics of post-modern metafiction claim that it marks the death or exhaustion of the novel as a genre, while advocates argue that it signals the novel's rebirth.  Devotees claim that other genres have undergone the same critical self-reflexivity and that the definition of the novel itself, "notoriously defies definition"(Waugh 5).  Waugh comments that, "contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of external verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures"(Waugh 7).

Explicit use of metafictional technique, as Waugh describes it, stems from modernist questioning of consciousness and 'reality.'  Several common epithets used to describe contemporary metafiction are: self conscious, introspective, introverted, narcissistic or auto-representational (Currie 14).

Attempting to defend twentieth century metafiction, theorists link metafictional technique to older literary works.  Some supporters trace self-reflexivity as far back as Miguel Cervantes' fifteenth century novel, Don Quixote.  Hamlet's references to acting in Shakespeare's Hamlet (c.1600) and Jane Austin's mention of writing the novel by her narrator in Northanger Abbey (1817) are also often cited as instances in which classic works display metafictional tendency.  Waugh goes so far as to claim that, "by studying metafiction, one is, in effect, studying that which gives the novel its identity"(5). Similarly, Linda Hutcheon says that "in overtly or covertly baring its fictional and linguistic systems, narcissistic narrative transforms the authorial process of shaping, of making, into part of the pleasure and challenge of reading as a co-operative, interpretative experience"(154).


Employing the term "metafiction" to refer to modern works that are radically self-reflexive as well as to works that contain only a few lines of self-reflection creates ambiguity.  In her review of Patricia Waugh's Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction (1984), Ann Jefferson argues that "the trouble is that Waugh cannot have it both ways, and present metafiction both as an inherent characteristic of narrative fiction and as a response to the contemporary social and cultural vision" (574). Other theorists often employ the same double definition of metafiction, which makes it difficult to know whether his or her definition refers to contemporary metafiction or to all works containing self-reflexivity.  John Barth contributes a short blanket definition of metafiction as being a "novel that imitates a novel rather than the real world" (qtd. in Currie 161).

Patricia Waugh also provides a comprehensive definition by describing metafiction as "fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality" (2).  Metafictional works, she suggests, are those which "explore a theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction" (2).  Mark Currie highlights current metafiction's self-critical tendency by depicting it as "a borderline discourse, a kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, which takes the border as its subject" (2).  Yet, he too encompasses works that are marginally metafictional by proposing that, "to see the dramatized narrator or novelist as metanarrative devices is to interpret a substantial proportion of fiction as meta-fiction"(4).

Despite the subtle differences between their definitions, most theorists agree that metafiction cannot be classified as a genre nor as the definitive mode of postmodern fiction.  They suggest that metafiction display, "a self-reflexivity prompted by the author's awareness of the theory underlying the construction of fictional works," without dividing contemporary metafiction from older works containing similar self-reflective techniques (Waugh 2).

Spectrum of Metafictional Technique 

Further individuating the differences between metafictional characteristics present in post-modern fiction becomes even more complicated because some self-reflexive works also fall under more radical definitions.  Some contemporary metafiction can also be called surfiction, antifiction, fabulation, neo-baroque fiction, post-modernist fiction, introverted novel, irrealism, or as the self-begetting novel (Waugh 13).

Patricia Waugh identifies three types of contemporary metafiction.  John Fowles' subversion of the role of the 'omniscient narrator' in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) exemplifies the first type, which Waugh describes as upsetting a particular convention of the novel.  Within the second type, she includes works that present a parody on a specific work or fictional mode.  John Fowles' Mantissa (1982) for example, presents a metafictional parody of metafiction (Ommundesen 1-2). The third type are works that are less overtly metafictional. Like Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America (1967), these works attempt to create alternative linguistic structures or to merely imply old forms by encouraging the reader to draw on his or her knowledge of traditional literary conventions (Waugh 4).

Ommundeson also makes efforts to differentiate between aspects present in metafiction.  She divides metafiction according to its use of three common allegorical plot devices.  The first plot allegory is use of a sexual act as a metaphor for creating fiction.  She describes the second common metaphor as the use of the detective to serve as a model for the reader's activity.  The third common allegory she cites is that of the use of game structures to represent codes of fictional systems.


Although characteristics of metafiction vary as widely as the spectrum of technique used within them, a pattern of several common traits can be traced.  These techniques often appear in combination, but also can appear singularly.
Metafiction often employs intertextual references and allusions by

* examining fictional systems
* incorporating aspects of both theory and criticism
* creating biographies of imaginary writers
* presenting and discussing fictional works of an imaginary character

Authors of metafiction often violate narrative levels by

* intruding to comment on writing
* involving his or herself with fictional characters
* directly addressing the reader
* openly questioning how narrative assumptions and conventions transform and filter reality, trying to ultimately prove that no singular truths or meanings exist

Metafiction also uses unconventional and experimental techniques by

* rejecting conventional plot
* refusing to attempt to become "real life"
* subverting conventions to transform 'reality' into a highly suspect concept
* flaunting and exaggerating foundations of their instability (Waugh 5)
* displaying reflexivity (the dimension present in all literary texts and also central to all literary analysis, a function which enables the reader to understand the processes by which he or she reads the world as a text)

The Purpose of Metafiction 

Proponents believe that the metafictional novel gains significance beyond its fictional realms by outwardly projecting its inner self-reflective tendencies.

Ironically, it becomes real by not pretending to be real.  Mark Currie posits that metafiction allows its readers a better understanding of the fundamental structures of narrative while providing an accurate model for understanding the contemporary experience of the world as a series constructed systems (7).  In reflecting on the significance of metafiction, he goes so far as to say that it provides an "unlimited vitality: which was once thought introspective and self-referential is in fact outward looking" (Currie 2).  Patricia Waugh further states that:

 Far from 'dying', the novel has reached a mature recognition of its existence as
 writing, which can only ensure its continued viability in and relevance to a
 contemporary world which is similarly beginning to gain awareness of precisely
 how its values and practices are constructed and legitimized. (19)

Historiographic Metafiction 

Linda Hutcheon differentiates the terms "metafiction" and "historiographic metafiction."  She says that "historiographic metafiction, in deliberate contrast to what I call late modernist radical metafiction (American surfiction), attempts to demarginalize the literary through confrontation with the historical, and it does so both thematically and formally" (289).  Works are dubbed "historiographic metafictions" because of their conscious self-reflexivity and concern with history.  The earliest histories contain fictional elements.  They are implicit amalgamations of fact and myth.  The composition of the word "history" itself contains the word "story".  Yet, as realism took root, history came to represent "objective" fact and the novel came to represent subjective "fiction."

Modernist and postmodernist questioning challenged the authority of histories by acknowledging that the "fact" presented is the author's subjective interpretation. Historiographic metafictions are "novels that are intensely self-reflective but that also both re-introduce historical context into metafiction and problemitize the entire question of historical knowledge" (Hutcheon 285-286).  Historiographic metafictions bridge the fissure between historical and fictional works by recombining the two genres.  They employ "a questioning stance through their common use of conventions of narrative, of reference, of the inscribing of subjectivity, of their identity as texuality, and even of their implication in ideology" (Hutcheon 286).

Beyond reconnecting history and fiction, Linda Hutcheon remarks that "postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological" (209).  To accomplish this re-presentation of the past, historiographic metafiction, "plays upon the truth and lies of the historical record.  Certain known historical details are deliberately falsified in order to foreground the possible mnemonic failures of recorded history and the constant potential for both deliberate and inadvertent error" (Hutcheon 294).

Through its play upon "known truth" historiographic metafiction questions the absolute "knowability" of the past, specifing the ideological implications of historical representations.  In its process of redefining "reality" and "truth" historiographic metafiction opens a sort of time tunnel which rediscovers the histories of suppressed people such as women or colonized natives.  Good examples of metafictional works are Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, B.S. Johnson's Travelling People, Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing, and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Author: Victoria Orlowski, Spring 1996

"Historiographic Metafiction: 'The Pastime of Past time'"

from Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: 1988.

Presented by Angela Wei, 11/4, 1998


Historiographic metafiction:
Historiographic metafiction is one kind of postmodern novel which rejects projecting present beliefs and standards onto the past and asserts the specificity and particularity of the individual past event. It also suggests a distinction between ¡§events¡¨ and ¡§facts¡¨ that is one shared by many historians. Since the documents become signs of events, which the historian transmutes into facts, as in historiographic metafiction, the lesson here is that the past once existed, but that our historical knowledge of it is semiotically transmitted. Finally, Historiographic metafiction often points to the fact by using the paratextual conventions of historiography to both inscribe and undermine the authority and objectivity of historical sources and explanations. (122-123, Linda Hutcheon)

One author often associated with historiographic metafiction is , in works such as , , , and . 's novels  and  can also be regarded as historiographic metafiction in their re-writing of the history of Pakistan and India in the early- and mid-twentieth century.      

Key Facts

full title ·  The English Patient 

author · Michael Ondaatje

type of work · Novel

genre · Historical fiction

language · English

time and place written · 1992; Toronto

date of first publication · 1993

publisher · Vintage International

narrator · The narrator is omniscient, and conveys the points of view of several different characters

climax · Kip threatens to kill Almásy, the English patient, after he hears the news that the United States has dropped atomic bombs on Japan .

protagonist · Almasy, the English patient

antagonist · World War II; the war disrupts the lives of all the characters and makes it impossible for Almasy to continue his love affair with Katharine

setting (time) · The scenes in the villa take place in 1945, at the very end of the World War II, though the various flashbacks are set throughout the 1930s and early 1940s

setting (place) · Primarily a small villa in the hills near Florence, Italy; but also Cairo, the Libyan desert, and England

point of view · The point of view is generally third-person omniscient, except several times when the English patient begins to tell stories about his past in the first person

falling action · Kip's desertion of the villa on his motorbike without saying goodbye to Hana, Almasy, or Caravaggio; Kip's thoughts of Hana while having dinner with his new family in India years later

tense · Present tense when Ondaatje writes about live and events in the Italian villa; past tense when one of the characters is flashing back to a previous memory or event

foreshadowing · Almasy draws his arm across Katharine's neck, a foreshadowing of their violent and passionate love affair; Kip's emotional distance, which prefigures his desertion of Hana at the end of the novel

tone · Reflective and poetic, as each of the characters' memories are revealed complete with their thoughts and personal connections

themes · Love's ability to transcend time and place; nationality and identity; the connection between body and mind; ownership

motifs · Reading; the desert; maps; history books; bodies

symbols · The bomb; the villa; the English patient's burned body


Michael Ondaatje, poet, filmmaker, and editor, was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in September 1943. He moved to England with his mother in 1954, and then relocated to Canada in 1962, receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto and a master's degree from Queen's University in Kingston. Originally a poet, Ondaatje's eventual career in fiction was boosted by the success of his book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), an account of the factual and fictional life of the famous outlaw, for which Ondaatje won a Governor General's award. He won the coveted award again in 1979 for a second book of poetry entitled There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do.

In the 1980s, Ondaatje turned his attention to novels, publishing Running in the Family (1982) about his family's life in Ceylon, and In the Skin of the Lion (1987), which is set in 1930s Toronto. Ondaatje is perhaps best known, however, for The English Patient (1992), a novel set in World War II Italy. Ondaatje won a Booker Prize for the novel, and the 1996 film adaptation went on to win widespread critical acclaim and nine Academy Awards. Alongside his writing, Ondaatje has taught at York University in Toronto since 1971. He and his wife, Linda Spalding, make there home in Toronto, and together edit the literary journal Brick.

The English Patient is a work of historical fiction set in the hills of Tuscany during World War II. It intersperses the factual and the imaginary into a tale of tragedy and passion. Structurally, the novel resists chronological order, alternating between present action in the Italian villa and flashbacks to memories of a mysterious desert romance that is gradually revealed. The imagery is characterized by Ondaatje's "preoccupation with romantic exoticism and multiculturalism." Rather than offer a narrator telling a straightforward story, Ondaatje turns the romance into an unlikely mystery, revealing hidden facets of character and identity as the novel progresses. Ondaatje explores his characters by placing them in blank, secluded settings. Both the barren desert and the isolated Tuscan villa are insular and remote, enabling the author to study his characters intensely.

Innovative in narrative structure and complicated by numerous points of view, The English Patient resists easy classification into any particular literary genre. Yet Ondaatje uses the novel to renew themes that have been explored throughout the ages: national identity, the connection between body and mind, and love that transcends place and time. Perhaps most significant is the fact that Ondaatje blends the forms of prose and poetry, evoking images and emotions with highly lyrical language. His words translate "real experience into symbolic experience" by appealing to memories that involve all of the reader's senses. As Ondaatje once said in a radio interview, he uses his prose to "create a tactile landscape for his choreography." In The English Patient such a landscape augments the poetry and lyricism of the novel.

Plot Overview

In The English Patient, the past and the present are continually intertwined. The narrative structure intersperses descriptions of present action with thoughts and conversations that offer glimpses of past events and occurrences. Though there is no single narrator, the story is alternatively seen from the point of view of each of the main characters.

The novel opens with , a young nurse, gardening outside a villa in Italy in 1945. The European theater of the war has just ended with the Germans retreating up the Italian countryside. As the Germans retreated, they left hidden bombs and mines everywhere, so the landscape is particularly dangerous. Although the other nurses and patients have left  to escape to a safer place, Hana decides to stay in the villa with her patient.

Hana does not know much about the man for whom she cares. Found in the wreckage of a plane crash, he been burned beyond recognition, his whole body black and even the slightest touch painful to him. He talks about the Bedouin tribe who found him in the wreckage, cared for his wounds, and eventually returned him to a British camp in 1944. He does not know who they were, but he feels grateful to them nonetheless. To pass the time, Hana reads to the English patient—she assumes he is English by his manner and speech—and also gardens, fixes up the villa, and plays hopscotch. Sometimes she picks up 's notebook, a copy of Herodotus's The Histories marked throughout with his own notes, figures, and observations, and reads to him or to herself.

One day, a man with bandaged hands named  arrives at the villa. He is an old family friend of , Patrick, and had heard about her location while he was recovering in a hospital a few miles away. In Canada, where Caravaggio knew Hana years ago, he was a thief. He tells her how his skills were legitimized in the war and how he put them to use working for British Intelligence in North Africa. He tells her that the Germans caught him after an attempt to steal a camera from a woman's room. They tortured him and cut off his thumbs, leaving his hands mutilated and nearly useless. Although he has recovered somewhat, he is still addicted to morphine. In the villa, he reminisces with Hana and mourns with her over the death of her father in the war.

As Hana plays the piano in the library, two soldiers come in and stand alongside while she plays. One of them is , an Indian Sikh trained as a sapper, or bomb-defuser, in the British army. After hearing the piano, Kip has come to clear the villa of bombs, knowing that the Germans frequently booby-trapped musical instruments. Kip and the English patient get along very well, as they are both experts in guns and bombs and enjoy talking to each other and sharing stories. Kip makes camp in the garden of the villa and becomes a part of the "family" that now exists there. He goes off into town every day to clear more bombs from the area and to bury fellow sappers who have died. Kip's job is extremely dangerous. He feels a strong attraction to Hana, and soon they become lovers.

Asked about his past, the English patient begins to tell the others his story. His real name is Almasy, though this is not definitively confirmed until Chapter IX. He spent the years from 1930 to the start of World War II exploring the North African desert. His job was to make observations, draw maps, and search for ancient oases in the sands. Along with his fellow European counterparts, Almasy knew every inch of the desert and made many trips across it. In 1936, a young man from Oxford, , and his new wife , joined their party. Geoffrey owned a plane, which the party found especially useful in helping to map the desert. The explorers, Almasy, and the Cliftons got along very well. One night, after hearing Katharine read a passage from his book of Herodotus, Almasy realized he was in love with her. They soon began a torrid and tumultuous affair. Everywhere they stole glances and moments, and they were obsessed with each other. Finally, in 1938, Katharine broke off their affair, telling Almasy that Geoffrey would go mad if he ever found out. Although their affair was over, Almasy remained haunted by her, and he tried to punish her for hurting him by being particularly mean to her in public. At some point, Geoffrey somehow found out about the affair.

World War II broke out in 1939, and Almasy decided to close up their camp and arranged for Geoffrey to pick him up in the desert. Geoffrey arrived in his plane with Katharine. Geoffrey attempted to kill all three of them by crashing the plane into Almasy, who was standing on the ground. The plane missed Almasy, but the crash killed Geoffrey, left Katharine severely injured, and left them with no way to escape the desert. Almasy placed Katharine in a nearby cave, covering her with a parachute for warmth, and promised to come back for her. He walked across the desert for four days until he reached the nearest town, but when he got there, the English army would not help him get back to Katharine. Because Almasy had a foreign-sounding name, the British were suspicious and locked him up as a spy, prevented him from saving Katharine.

Almasy was eventually released, but he knew it was too late to save her. He worked for the Germans, helping their spies make their way across the desert into Cairo. After he left Cairo, his truck broke down in the desert. Without transportation, he walked to the cave to get Katharine. He took her dead body and placed it in a plane that had been buried beneath the sand. The plane malfunctioned during their flight and caught fire. Almasy parachuted down from the plane, his body covered in flames. That was the point at which the Bedouins found him and cared for his burns.

Little by little, the English patient tells this whole story. Caravaggio, who has suspected the English patient was not really English, has his suspicions confirmed. He fills in gaps for the Almasy, telling him that Geoffrey Clifton was really an agent of British Intelligence and that Intelligence had known about Almasy and Katharine's affair the whole time. They knew Almasy had started helping the Germans and planned to kill him in the desert. They lost him between Cairo and the plane crash, and now, of course, he is unrecognizable.

The focus of the novel shifts to Kip, and we are told his entire story. Although Kip's brother always distrusted the west, Kip went willingly to serve in the British army. He was trained as a bomb defuser under , a true English gentleman, and was then virtually welcomed into an English family. Kip soon grew quite skillful at his job, able to figure out both the "joke" and the "character" of each bomb he tackled. Lord Suffolk and his group were blown up defusing a bomb, and Kip decided to leave England and become a sapper in Italy.

Kip has felt emotionally removed from everyone in his job as a sapper. When he meets Hana, he uses her to once again connect to humanity. All the residents of the villa celebrate Hana's twenty-first birthday, and Kip grows comfortable as her lover. When August comes, however, Kip hears on the radio of  that the United States has dropped on Japan. He becomes enraged, knowing that a western country would never commit such an atrocity against another white country. He takes his gun and threatens to kill the English patient, whom he sees as a symbol of the West. Kip does not kill Almasy, but takes off on his motorcycle, leaving the villa forever. Years later, he is a doctor in India with a family of his own. Though he is happy and fulfilled in his new life, he often wonders about Hana.

Character List

Almásy  -  The protagonist of the novel and the English patient of the title. Almásy is knowledgeable and reflective, the "blank screen" upon which the other characters reflect their thoughts and wishes. Though he is badly burned in a plane crash, he retains all his mental faculties and is able to tell Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio the pieces of his past and the story of how he fell in love with Katharine. Almásy strongly believes that nations are dangerous inventions, and that love can transcend both time and geography.

The protagonist and the "" of the novel's title, Almásy exists as the center and focus of the action, despite the fact that he is without name or  for much of the novel. Almásy thus serves as the blank sheet upon whom all the other characters focus their desires and expectations. Little by little, he reveals his identity, and finally his name, in Chapter IX. When Almásy's name is revealed we discover the great irony of the novel: the "English patient" is not even English, but rather Hungarian by birth, an "international bastard" who has spent much of his adult life wandering the desert. In this way, the English patient serves to highlight the great difference between imagination and reality, and the abstraction of concepts such as nationality and citizenship. On the whole, Almásy is not at all what the other characters think he appears to be.

Almásy's manner is knowledgeable and reflective. His entire career has consisted of searching for ancient cities and mapping empty land. He thus links the past to the present, writing in the margins of Herodotus what he sees to be the truths of the landscape. Almásy's clear-minded and otherwise rational thinking, however, is clouded by the entrance of  into his life. He becomes obsessed with images of her body, which then inspire the writing of his book. He is unable to focus on his work, frustrated that he is at a loss to name the spot at the base of her neck. Almásy is overwhelmed by passion for Katherine, walking without direction through the desert like a madman after her death, searching for her body so he may return her to England as he promised.

Though Almásy is not a highly dynamic character—by the year in which the story is set, all the events of his life have passed—he is arguably the most intriguing and mysterious figure. He is portrayed in a sympathetic light, but we must keep in mind that this may be because we hear his story from his own point of vies. From an objective perspective, many of his actions, lies, and betrayals appear reprehensible. Nonetheless, Almásy escapes total condemnation because of his knowledge, charm, and adherence to his own system of values. To Almásy—who places no value in the concept of nations and states—it is not at all unethical to help a German spy through the desert. Indeed, Almásy concludes that national identity is completely irrelevant in the desert. Ultimately, however, he suffers greatly for his beliefs and for his moments of passion. Almásy's enduring spirit and his firm connection between past and present are what keep him, the English patient, foremost in our minds.

Hana  -  A young Canadian who serves the Allies as a nurse in World War II. Only twenty years old, Hana is an excellent nurse who takes good care of her patients. She has quickly learned that she must not become emotionally attached to her patients, as she has seen too many young soldiers slip out of her life. Very close to her father, Hana had an emotional breakdown when she heard the news of his death. She falls in love with the idea of the English patient, of the thought that she is caring for a saint-like man. Her heart, however, belongs to Kip, to whom she looks for protection as she stands at the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.

Only twenty years old,  is torn between adolescence and adulthood. Barely eighteen when she leaves to become a nurse in the war, she is forced to grow up quickly, eliminating the luxuries of her character that get in the way of her duty. Three days into her work, she cuts off all her hair, as it gets in the way of her work, and refuses to look in a mirror for the duration of the war. With the confidence that comes with experience, Hana cares for , bringing him morphine and washing his wounds. Yet she still clings to vestiges of innocence that allow her to feel like a child—some nights, she goes out in the garden to play hopscotch. Hana is a dynamic character, and the novel is in many ways the story of her maturity into adulthood.

Hana goes about her duty with a Christian belief that has been somewhat compromised by the war. While she refrains from praying and outright religious ceremony, the allusions she makes are clearly religious. Hana sees her English patient as a "despairing saint" with "hipbones like Christ." This religious imagery elevates the tone of her thoughts and he importance of her actions. She imagines the patient to have been a noble warrior who has suffered—perhaps wrongly—for his actions. In reality, however, Almásy is a mapmaker who has helped German spies and carried on an affair with another man's wife. By projecting noble images onto the blank  of the English patient, Hana builds innocent and childlike dreams. As the novel concludes, Hana sees the reality in her situation, and she longs to return home to the safety of  and her home.

Kip  -  A Sikh man from India who works as a "sapper," defusing bombs for the British forces in World War II. First introduced only as "the sikh," Kip is polite and well-mannered, and has both the skill and character to be an excellent sapper. A brown man in a white nation, Kip has grown emotionally detached, aware that people will not always react positively to him. His emotional detachment stands in the way of his relationships, most significantly his relationship with Hana.

As a soldier who has had a difficult life both at war and at home,  is a conflicted and complicated character. Ondaatje takes free license with Kip, employing him as a lens through which to explore Anglo-Indian relations during a period of chaos for the British Empire. Kip's experiences in India with his brother—who harbors deep resentment toward the West—and with fellow soldiers in England who react with reserve to his brown skin highlight the strained and skeptical relations between two parts of one large Empire. As an Indian man serving in the British army, Kip straddles two worlds, walking a fine line between adopting Western customs and losing his national .

Yet as a character in himself, Kip is complex and elusive. He reacts with warmth to the welcoming embrace of his mentor, , but shrugs off 's hug as he rides away on his motorcycle at the end of the novel. Much of the emotional distance Kip has built for himself is a result of his incredibly dangerous job in the war. As a man who must descend into deep pits to defuse bombs that could explode at any time, Kip has come to grips with the idea of his own mortality. His job has taught him to distrust everything and everyone. In , however, Kip becomes a part of the small community that has sprouted there and begins to let his guard down. However, the news of  dropped on Japan, which he sees as a symbol of Western aggression, jolts him back into the reality that exists outside the villa. Kip returns to the path that was initially laid out for him, becoming a doctor and having an Indian family. Tears later, however, his thoughts of  keep him tied between two worlds.

Caravaggio -  A Canadian thief whose profession is legitimized during the war when he puts his skills to use for the British intelligence effort. Caravaggio, whom we first know only as "the man with bandaged hands," proves endearing despite the fact that his actions are not always virtuous. Hana remembers that, in his burglaries, Caravaggio was always distracted by "the human element"—an Advent calendar that was not open to the right day, for example. Caravaggio serves as a kind of surrogate father to Hana, and sheds light on the identity of the English patient.

Katharine Clifton -  An Oxford-educated woman and the wife of Geoffrey Clifton. One of the most mysterious characters in the novel, Katharine is never fully understood. We know that she married Geoffrey quite young and traveled with him to Northern Africa, and that she is an avid reader who voraciously learns all she can about Cairo and the desert. Though polite and genteel, Katharine nevertheless takes what she wants, assertively approaching Almásy and telling him that she wants him to "ravish her." Though Geoffrey is a devoted and kind husband, Katharine never seems remorseful about her extramarital affair. We see Katharine's wild, dark side in her affair with Almásy, as she punches and stabs her lover, angry at him for refusing to change and daringly challenging the world to recognize their relationship.

Geoffrey Clifton -  A British explorer and Katharine Clifton's husband. A young, good-natured, affable man, Geoffrey is a new addition to the group of explorers who are mapping the North African desert. Geoffrey seems to have everything going for him: an Oxford education, wealthy family connections, and a beautiful young wife. He is a proud and devoted husband, and enjoys praising his wife in front of the other explorers. Goeffrey claims to have come to North Africa purely out of an interest in exploration, but Almásy finds out that Geoffrey has been working for British Intelligence as an aerial photographer. Everyone seems to like Geoffrey, but Katharine, who knows him best, knows his capacity to be insanely jealous.

Madox -  Almásy's best friend in the desert. Madox is a rational, level-headed man who, like Almásy, chose to live in the desert to study the features of the land and report back to the Geographical Society. Unlike Almásy, Madox includes his own emotional reactions in his writing and reports, and is not shy to describe his amazement at a particular mountain or his wonder at the size of the moon. Madox always carries a copy of Anna Karenina, the famous tale of adultery, but remains ever faithful to his wife back home. Madox sees the church as proclaiming a jingoistic pro-war message during World War II. He takes his own life in the church, and Almásy concludes that he "died because of nations."

Lord Suffolk -  A member of the old English aristocracy who, once the war begins, takes it upon himself to defuse bombs and train other men to do so. Lord Suffolk is the one "true English gentleman" whom Kip meets while he is abroad. Though Lord Suffolk is described as strange and eccentric, Kip finds that he is actually a wonderful man and a kind mentor. Kip especially values the fact that Lord Suffolk can look beyond his race and welcome him into the "English family." The nobleman's death is a large loss in Kip's life.

Patrick  -  Hana's father, the only parent who was present to raise her while she was growing up. Like Hana, Patrick leaves Canada to join the war effort. Hana is extremely close to her father, and the news of his death sparks her initial emotional breakdown. She takes comfort in the fact that he died in a "holy place," a dove-cot.

Clara -  Hana's stepmother and Patrick's wife. Clara does not appear in the novel as a character, but Hana thinks of her occasionally, remembering her in a canoe on the lake she loves so much. Despite her absence, Clara plays an important role in the novel because, to Hana, she symbolizes home, the place she has escaped from but the place to which she longs to return at the end of the novel.

Chapter I


A woman is gardening. She feels it starting to rain, so she returns inside and enters a room where a man lies on a bed. Every four days she washes his burned body, making it her job to care for his wounds and make him more comfortable. She feeds him with fruit from the garden.

 asks  how he was burned. He tells her he fell from a plane into the desert. Bedouin nomads saw him stand up, still burning, and emerge from the plane. They carry him across the desert to their camp and care for his wounds, putting a mask of herbs on his face and teaching him to lift his arms and draw strength from the universe. They do not know who he is, nor does he know them. Though he never sees them, he can tell them by scent and taste. They chew his food for him so that he might eat.

The nurse reads every night. Books are her window into another world, out of the cell of the war. She reads to her patient, but is not sure whether or not he listens. The nurse spends much of her time gardening, growing enough vegetables for them to eat, to trade a little, and to survive. They inhabit a bombed-out villa. In many parts, rain falls freely into the house. The German army had occupied the house and has left mines throughout. The nurse knows these dangers but does not pay much attention to them. She is only twenty years old and enjoys sleeping in the library, with its view of the night sky.

 is in an Italian hill town that contains one other villa and a monastery. The Villa Medici was were the generals lived; the Villa San Girolamo, which used to be a convent, had become the last stronghold of the German army and had housed nearly a hundred troops. The Allies turned the building into a hospital when they took over. The other nurses and patients moved to a safer location in the south, but this nurse, concerned for her English patient, insisted on staying behind. Though they have no heat or electricity, they manage to get by in the devastated villa. The nurse cleans out the villa and she feels safe there, though she knows there is danger of roaming brigands. She takes a crucifix from the church to make a scarecrow for her garden. She plays hopscotch at night to entertain herself.

The nurse picks up her patient's notebook. It is a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, with the patient's own writing, observations, and memoirs pasted into it. She reads of the desert winds that are known to destroy. The patient begins talking to her, telling her that the Bedouins cared for him and kept him alive because they suspected he had a skill. He is familiar with maps, remembers everything he reads, and knows the locations of ancient civilizations, lakes, and towns. He knows North Africa, and is useful to those nations fighting their wars on soil they do not know. The Bedouins bring him to a canyon and he realizes why they have brought him there. They ask him to reach out with his hand and identify the different types of guns. The guns are from many countries and all different time periods—a "museum in the desert." He shows the men how to match shells to guns in order to fire them. They cheer him on as he uses his skill to repay them for their care.

The Bedouins blindfold the patient most of the time, taking him to their secret towns and ceremonies. He has not been able to see for so long that he wonders whether the Bedouin dances are dreams or realities. There are no women in this camp, and he desires a young Bedouin boy.


Ondaatje takes full advantage of the possibilities of narrating in different tenses, alternating between present and past, changing tenses as he changes scenes. The novel uses flowing transitions to move from present action to flashback, mirroring real action and remembrance in smooth movement of prose. Such transitions and tense changes effectively put us in the position of outside observers peering into a scene. We do not know what has happened in the past and are not given any explanations for what we see, but things are explained to us little by little. Ondaatje's use of tense creates the illusion of a continuous reality, a past that is in line with a present—in fact, inseparable from it.

The descriptiveness and lyricism of Chapter I are especially notable. The account of the patient's burned body and the Italian villa are detailed and realistic. Religious allusions are frequently in these passages: the nurse thinks her patient's hipbones are like the "[h]ipbones of Christ"; the Bedouin medicine man uses his oils to "anoint" the patient, much like John the Baptist and the baptism of Christ; and the patient thinks the figure of the medicine man looks like the drawings of the archangels he had tried to copy in school. Christianity permeates the minds of these characters, though they often choose to put it aside to deal with the realities of war. The nurse, who places the practicalities of survival before her religion, uses a crucifix to make a scarecrow for her garden. This image of the 'crucified scarecrow' is in great contrast to the religious images that have come before it. While the former images heighten the tone of the events, the latter brings the situation back into reality, making a point about the place of religion in war.

Chapter II


The man with bandaged hands, , has been in the military hospital in Rome for over four months. He has been evasive with the doctors and nurses, refusing to tell them anything more than his serial number, which identifies him as part of the Allies. He is a war hero and they grant him his silence. He overhears the doctors talking about a  and a burned patient and he finally speaks to them, inquiring where the nurse is. They tell him that she and  are in an old, unsafe nunnery in the hills of Florence. They had tried to talk her into coming back to a safer place with them, but now that the war was over in these parts, it was impossible to force anyone to do anything anymore. The doctors tell him that the burned man talks all the time, but does not know who he is.

Caravaggio travels to the hills of Florence to find the nurse and her patient. He has known her for a long time, since she was a little girl in Toronto before the war. He remembers when she refused to have her tonsils taken out. The nurse, Hana, is surprised to see Caravaggio in her villa. He finds a bedroom and puts his things in it. She tells him that she is glad to see him, but that they will need more food now that he is here. He tells her he is unable to catch chickens like he used to, for he lost his nerve because the Germans caught him and nearly chopped off his hands. Looking at Hana, Caravaggio is reminded of his wife. He is romantically interested in Hana, but he knows she has emotionally committed herself to the dying man upstairs.

Hana asks Caravaggio if he has been a spy and he tells her he has not. He has always been a thief, and the Allies sent him to steal some documents from a room at a German party. While he was at the party in a tuxedo, a woman took a picture of him, and he knew the picture would incriminate him. That night, he snuck into the woman's bedroom and stole her camera. Though she saw him, she seemed to agree not to tell her German boyfriend on him.

Nurses such as Hana often became shell-shocked from witnessing so much death around them. Hana pinpoints her breakdown to the moment that an official delivered a letter to her telling of the death of her father. It was not long after that that she met the English patient and decided to stay in  to care for him. She has never learned much about him, as there has been a shyness between them that is difficult to overcome.

One night, Caravaggio finds Hana in the kitchen, half-naked and sobbing deeply. She does not want to make love to him, as she is in love with the English patient. She believes the patient is a saint who needs her to care for him. Caravaggio tries to tell Hana that it is foolish for her to throw herself away on a ghost, but she does not care. Her mind flashes back to her youth in Toronto, when Caravaggio had been her first teacher, showing her how to do somersaults when she was little. When she grew older, she trained to be a nurse. After the first three days taking care of the men wounded from the battles of war, Hana cut off her hair because it got in the way. She never looked in a mirror again. After being in the war for so long, Hana grew colder and more detached, calling all her patients "Buddy." Staying in the villa and caring for the English patient is Hana's way of escaping the war and hiding from adulthood.

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Hana and Caravaggio go out for a walk at night. He lets her change the bandages on his hands, and he tells her how he was tortured. The Germans caught him jumping from a woman's window and then brought him in, handcuffed him to a table, and cut off his thumbs. When Hana and Caravaggio get back to the house, the English patient sees Caravaggio and is stunned.

Hana decides to play the old piano in the library. Outside, it is pouring rain, and two soldiers slip into the library, at first unnoticed by Hana. With their guns, they come ...

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With deep insight into both the novel and fundamental issues of nationality, the essay writer skillfully merges quotations from the text with aptly chosen comments from other sources. Sentence and paragraph construction are well constructed, with only a few errors in punctuation and grammar. 5 Stars