Monday, October 10, 2011

the english patient

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Unlike many stories which are set during the Second World War, in his novel The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje does not bring the bloody and cruel scenes of war directly to the readers. Instead, he turns to a comparatively peaceful and insular Italian villa in the hills. Four people live in this villa are the main characters in this story. They are Hana, a Canadian nurse, an English patient, whom Hana is taking care of, David Caravaggio, who is an old friend of Hana¡¯s father, and Kip, a Sikh working as a sapper in this area. Their intersectional memories and conversations present a poetic and dream-like novel.


The English Patient displays these four people¡¯s destinies which are forever changed and shattered by the war. In the war, their lives are completely damaged, and they have been taken away so many things family, love, health, face and even name and identity. Each of them is badly hurt either in the body or in the spirit. In this sense, they are all patients suffering from the war and eagerly looking forward to cure.


Hana has lost her father, her lover and the baby she was carrying during the war. Their death brings her such great sorrow that she decides to stay behind with the severely burnt patient when the rest of the medical staff moves on. She is so immune to death that she fears she has lost the capacity to feel. She walks around the villa like an empty shell tending the mysterious patient. She has deep sympathy with the patient and also taking care of him makes her sink deeper into oblivion. The patient is assumed as an Englishman because of his speech and mannerism. Actually he is a Hungarian Count named Almasy. He is badly burnt beyond recognition in a plane crash in the Libyan desert. His has double sufferings. On one hand, he has to stand the physical pains. On the other hand, the reminiscences of his past torture him always, and this suffering is much more difficult for him to bear than the former. The love between Catherine and him compels him to wander on the edge of friendship and betrayal. And also he is involved in the war by this affection. In order to save his lover, he has to bear the charge of being a spy, which almost deprives him of everything. Caravaggio loses both of his thumbs. However, the anxiety in his mind seems to persecute him more often than the pains from his wounds. He is eager to know whether the English patient is the spy whose betrayal makes him lose thumbs. He interrogates the patient time and time again, trying to find out his true identity so that he can relieve his eternal regrets brought by the war. Comparatively speaking, Kip¡¯s pains are more hidden than the others¡¯. As an Indian man serving in the British army, he ¡°straddles two worlds, walking on the fine line between adopting Western customs and losing his own national identity¡±. He is deep in the belief crisis. His brother has great resentment toward the west. Yet his training in Britain makes him a bomb expert and he respects his mentor Lord Suffolk and decides to take the task as a bomb defuser. He seems to lose himself fighting the war in the uniform of his imperial masters. The small villa actually becomes a wartime hospital where the four people are curing themselves and each other. In this villa they are no longer isolated individuals. They are in close relation with each other who also suffers greatly from the cruel war and needs help and cure.


Though each one has his own trauma, they are all trying to show and cure their sufferings. They try to help each other to walk out of the shadows brought by the war. In the small villa, they are all walking on the road of salvation. Hana carefully tends the English patient, reading to him, helping him to get out of the nightmare of his past. As a matter of fact, Almasy¡¯s romance encourages Hana at the same time. Through his love story, Hana gets back her feelings and emotions. She no longer immerses herself in deep sorrows but faces the real life bravely. The love affair between her and Kip is also a course of salvation. In the end, her sadness and sorrow have gone away. After the patient¡¯s death, she finishes her task and steps toward a new life. Almasy¡¯s recollection gradually unravels Caravaggio¡¯s doubts and suspicions. His betrayal during the urgency is not out of deliberation but appears to be reasonable and pitiable. Kip¡¯s problem is more complex than the others¡¯. He belongs to two countries yet remains a permanent wanderer. The news that the atomic bombs have been dropped in Japan disillusions him. He realized that he has risked his life for the west and now they betray him and skin color and Indian origins make him a perpetual outsider. Just as what he says in the last chapter of the novel ¡°When you start bombing the brown races of the world, youre an Englishman.¡± Caravaggio finds himself agreeing with Kip that they would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation. As a result, Kip leaves Hana, Caravaggio and the patient, leaving the world which only belongs to them three. He is no longer their guard. He returns to his native land and later becomes a doctor, living happily with his family.


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Ondaatje reveals a world of individuals in spiritual crisis and a process of pursuing salvation. During the war, they are injured and trying to cure their trauma and rebuild their own spiritual habitat. Though it¡¯s a novel without any fighting hero and intense battle scenes in the novel, The English Patient can still be seen as an epic about the Second World War.





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