Caravaggio, with his bandaged hands, has been a patient at the military hospital in Rome for over four months now. He heard in passing about the nurse with the burned patient, and he stops now to ask a group of doctors for the woman’s name. The doctors are surprised; Caravaggio hasn’t spoken a word since coming to the hospital. When he first arrived, he wrote down only his serial number, which proved he was with the Allies. After confirming his identity with London, the hospital staff received him as a “war hero,” and they left him to sit silently, waiting for the next dose of morphine for the terrible pain in his hands.
Caravaggio is equally ashamed of his identity as a thief and an Italian. To Caravaggio, his Italian identity aligns him with the Axis, or the Germans, and all the unspeakable atrocities they have committed during the war. By giving only his serial number and not his name, Caravaggio is merely a member of the Allied forces, not an Italian with a moral objection to the actions of his country and government. He also does not have to admit to being a thief, and can instead be considered a “war hero” and a good person.
The doctors tell Caravaggio that the nurse, Hana, is in an old nunnery just north of Florence. The villa is incredibly unsafe, but she claims her patient isn’t stable enough to move. The doctors figure that Hana is suffering from shellshock, and she should have been sent home, but the war is over here, and they can’t force anyone to do anything anymore. Patients and soldiers are going AWOL left and right. No one has any idea who her patient, a burned Englishman, is, and he doesn’t know who he is either. The Bedouin brought him in from the desert, but he had no identification with him. The Bedouin keep military name tags as “great charms,” and no pilot ever comes out of the desert with identification.
The Bedouin keeping the pilots’ identification tags reflects the impermanence of the desert and the power it has to erase things, such as one’s identity and nationality. Ondaatje later writes that such distinctions are “insignificant” in the desert, and he even implies that such differences are responsible for the violence of the war. By taking the name tags, the Bedouin wipe the pilots clean of such unnecessary distinctions, putting everyone on more even ground.
The doctors tell Caravaggio that they can arrange a ride for him to the villa, but they remind him that it is very unsafe. The Germans laid bombs and mines during their retreat, and the sappers have yet to clear the area. Caravaggio thanks them and walks outside. “I need gelato,” he thinks to himself.
This again is evidence that Hana’s sense of safety at the villa is only an illusion. It is still just as dangerous at the villa as it was when the war was active in the area. Hana can, at any time, trip one of several bombs left by the Germans.
On the train moving north, Caravaggio can’t sleep as he is tossed about the small, smoke-filled cabin. He suddenly remembers that gelato is good for sore tonsils, and remembers accompanying the father of an obstinate young girl to the children’s ward of a hospital, where the girl stubbornly refused to allow the surgeons to remove her inflamed tonsils. Arriving at the villa, Caravaggio silently enters the room Hana is sitting in and kneels down next to her, “like an uncle.”
Caravaggio is often seen as a father figure, or “like an uncle” as he is here. His desire for gelato has prompted a memory—in tandem with his arrival at the villa, it is implied that Hana is, in fact, the little girl he knew years ago. In this sense, their history together is recalled through a story. Ondaatje’s novel unfolds through many nonlinear leaps such as this, which gives the story, and the history it reflects, a more authentic feel.
“I keep remembering how you stormed out of the hospital followed by two grown men,” Caravaggio says to Hana. He asks her where the kitchen is and goes to look around. Hana sits at the table shaking. This man she has known for so long has come all this way to see her. Hana stands up and goes to the English patient’s room.
Caravaggio has not seen Hana for some time, and his presence is completely unexpected, yet he approaches Hana and their reunion with nonchalance. Hana, however, does not, as she begins to shake. She later reveals that she has always loved Caravaggio, but she loves the English patient as well now, so she goes to him directly.
The next day, Caravaggio finds Hana washing sheets in the fountain outside the villa. The Allies destroyed the water pipes in an effort to get her to leave, and the fountain is the villa’s only water source. Hana tells Caravaggio that she hopes he hasn’t come to try to convince her to leave. He hasn’t. Caravaggio just wants to sit, have a drink, and listen to some Frank Sinatra without getting blown up. He says they should find some music as soon as possible; it will be good for her patient, but Hana says that her patient is still in Africa. The English love Africa, Caravaggio says. They have a connection to the desert, and “they’re not foreigners there.”
Caravaggio claims that the English love the desert because “they’re not foreigners there,” which implies that they are foreigners nearly everywhere else they go. This implication again reflects the impact of British colonialism. By the early 1900s, the English had colonized nearly a quarter of the world’s population, which not only reflects how frequently the English lived as foreigners, but how many places and people they presumed to control and exploit.
Hana says that if Caravaggio plans on staying at the villa, they will need more food. The vegetables won’t be enough, but she knows where they can find some chickens. She looks to Caravaggio hopefully. She is hoping he will use his skills to secure them some chickens. Caravaggio claims that he no longer has the “nerve,” and Hana offers to go with him, hoping he can teach her. Caravaggio again refuses. Hana asks him why, and he responds, “I was caught. They nearly chopped off my fucking hands.”
Here, Hana is hoping that Caravaggio will use his skills as a thief to steal them some chickens. It’s implied that he was caught stealing during the war, which resulted in his hands being mutilated as a punishment. As such, Caravaggio has “lost his nerve” to steal (even though the war legitimized his skills), as it ended so badly the last time he did it.
Hana often looks for Caravaggio late at night, after she has left the English patient. She finds him on the roof and sits next to him. The English patient thinks that ground-up peacock bones are a miracle cure, she tells Caravaggio. She asks Caravaggio if he was a spy, and he says he wasn’t. Caravaggio is a thief, and an Italian, and the Allies had been excited to use him. There were other Italians as well, five total, and they were sent into German strongholds to steal various things. Once, Caravaggio was sent to a German party to steal some important papers, and he was accidentally photographed by the girlfriend of a German general. Caravaggio knew all photos were reviewed by the Gestapo, so now he had to steal the camera, too.
The Italians sided with the Germans during the war, so Caravaggio is useful to the Allies. Italians drew less suspicion than people of other nationalities among the Germans, and could sneak in more easily to steal. Caravaggio’s identity as a thief is seen as beneficial and useful, too, which highlights just how unethical the war really is. Prior to the war (and undoubtedly after it as well), Caravaggio’s identity as a thief was condemned, yet this dishonesty is legitimized by the war and even makes Caravaggio a hero.
Caravaggio had snuck into the girlfriend’s room late that night while she was having sex with the general. A beam of light from a car outside illuminated the room, and the woman saw him. He made a silent cutting motion across his neck as a way of silencing her and reached for the camera.
Caravaggio isn’t a violent man, and he doesn’t wish to kill the woman, but the war forces him to do things he ordinarily wouldn’t. Like the English patient, Caravaggio needs to tell the story of how the war has traumatized him in order to heal from it. In this way, Caravaggio and the others heal both by listening to and telling stories.
Caravaggio stares at Hana sitting at the table and thinks about his wife, which he hardly does at all anymore. He keeps his bandaged hands under the table and watches as Hana eats. He eats all his meals with Hana, although he would rather eat alone. She has seen him eat with his hands “like someone from the East,” and it wounds his “vanity.” Caravaggio had known both Hana and her father, Patrick, when Caravaggio was a thief in Toronto before the war. Now they are both in Florence, and Hana has committed herself to the English patient, so Caravaggio just watches her eat.
Caravaggio doesn’t think of his wife anymore because of the distance created between them by war but also because he is in love with Hana. Caravaggio is ashamed by the way he must eat without thumbs, and he doesn’t want to eat this way in front of Hana. Caravaggio equates his sloppy eating with how “someone from the East” eats—with their hands—which he obviously considers uncivilized. This racist assumption further reflects the prejudice and Western superiority created by colonialism.
The makeshift hospital is part of the old monastery grounds. The nurses who came to the hospital to work were often just as shell-shocked as the men for whom they cared. They were broken down by letters, or severed limbs, or wounds that never stopped bleeding. Hana was broken when the war official handed her the letter that notified her of her father, Patrick’s, death.
Hana is absolutely traumatized by the violence of war, even though she was not involved in the actual fighting of it. Cleaning up the mess after such violence has taken its toll on Hana, as has losing her father to such violence. Hana is not physically harmed, but her psychological state is severely damaged all the same.
Hana met the English patient not long after Patrick’s death. At that time, most of the North American troops were being sent home, and Hana washed and folded her uniform and handed it in. The war in Europe was over, but the officers said she would still be guilty of desertion. Hana thought that was ridiculous. How could it be desertion if she wasn’t going anywhere? They warned her of unexploded bombs and left. Hana immediately began her garden in the rich soil next to the wrecked villa. Even though the ground was scorched and there wasn’t much water, she knew it would become green again.
When Hana removes her uniform, she turns her back on the part of her that was involved with the war. In essence, she leaves that part of herself behind and tries to move on and heal. The English patient, who is burned like Patrick was, helps Hana to move past the deep guilt she feels for not being able to care for Patrick as he died. In caring for the English patient, Hana herself heals and grows new, like the villa’s garden.
Later that night, Caravaggio finds Hana weeping shirtless at the kitchen table. He touches her gently on her bare shoulder and softly says her name. “Don’t touch me if you’re going to try and fuck me,” Hana says as she stands from the table. Caravaggio asks Hana why she loves the English patient so much. She tells him that the English patient is a “despairing saint,” and that she must protect him. Caravaggio is angry. Hana is only 20 years old, he says, and she has abandoned the world “to love a ghost.”
Caravaggio claims that Hana has abandoned the world “to love a ghost” because he sees how the English patient has replaced Patrick in Hana’s life, even if she is not yet able to perceive this. However, the English patient really is, in a way, Hana’s “despairing saint,” or savior. As caring for him helps her to overcome the loss of her father, the English patient does indeed save her from succumbing to despair.
Hana goes to her hammock to sleep. She took the hammock from a dead man some time ago. Throughout the duration of the war, she took only the hammock and a pair of tennis shoes, unlike Caravaggio, who has made a career stealing from others. Caravaggio had been Patrick’s friend before the war, and Hana has fond childhood memories of him. She isn’t sure how long Caravaggio has been in Italy. She came during the Sicilian invasion of 1943 and managed to survive by keeping a cold distance from her patients.
Like the other residents at the villa, Hana is able to survive the violence and atrocities of war by building walls and keeping a cold distance from others. They are able to survive, in essence, by not caring about others, but this is perhaps most damaging to their emotional health. Hana showed little concern and respect for those she stole from, and now feels deep guilt over her actions.
On Hana’s first day in Italy, her hair kept falling into bloody wounds, so she cut it all off and hasn’t looked in the mirror since. She grew increasingly distant, and called all of her patients “Buddy” instead of learning their names. She dressed wounds that bled constantly and removed shrapnel from countless bodies. Once, after her patient died, Hana ignored the rules and took his tennis shoes. Now, Hana is exhausted and always hungry, and she finds it exceedingly difficult to keep feeding the English patient, who can’t or won’t eat.
Hana’s impersonal approach to nursing during the war let her deny not only who she was, but who her patients were as well, which made it easier for her to stomach the atrocities of war and the frequent death. In cutting off her hair—a symbol of her identity—and refusing to look in the mirror, Hana denies the person she was before the war and becomes just another soldier, or “Buddy.”
When Hana first arrived at the villa, she was one of four nurses, two doctors, and 100 patients. She had little time to spend with any one patient, and most of her time was spent saying “hello Buddy” and “good-bye Buddy.” One day, while in the room she shared with another nurse, Hana caught the glint of a mirror out of the corner of her eye. She picked up the mirror and looked into it. It was small, and she could only see her cheek, so she moved it about trying to capture more of her face. She had not looked at herself for over a year. “Hi Buddy,” Hana said to the reflection.
Hana’s reference to herself as “Buddy” suggests that she is a stranger to herself after spending so much time in the war, which is an exceedingly violent and stressful situation. 100 patients to four nurses and two doctors is a completely unrealistic ratio, especially considering the extent of the trauma with which patients have been admitted. Hana said nothing but “hello Buddy” and “good-bye Buddy” because new patients were constantly arriving and quickly dying.
The next day, while sitting in the garden, Hana offers to remove Caravaggio’s bandages. After all, she is a nurse, she says. He is hesitant; he has come to think of the bandages as comfortable—something like a glove. Hana asks him how it happened, and Caravaggio tells her that he was caught jumping from the window of the general’s girlfriend. As he talks, Hana loosens the bandages, and Caravaggio takes a few steps backward, letting the fabric unravel from his hands. He turns his hands over and reveals two missing thumbs.
When Caravaggio allows Hana to remove his bandages and shows her his hands, he is effectively beginning to heal, both physically and emotionally. Hana can offer him medical care, but she can also offer him companionship and support—a family of sorts—that is necessary for them each to heal from the psychological trauma of the war.
As Hana inspects Caravaggio’s hands, she tells him that she used to think of him as the Scarlet Pimpernel when she was a child, and then she asks him who, specifically, cut of his thumbs. Caravaggio says that the Germans made one of their nurses do it, but that it wasn’t her fault. She had known nothing about him—not his name, nationality, or crime.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a literary character in The Scarlet Pimpernel series by Baroness Orczy, which again reflects the importance of books in Hana’s life. Hana understands and interprets her life and the people in it in relation to books and stories.
Hana and Caravaggio suddenly become aware of the English patient shouting, and Hana immediately runs up the stairs. Caravaggio quietly follows, and when he enters the room, he finds Hana and the English patient staring at a stray dog in the middle of the room. Caravaggio hasn’t seen a dog in years, so he walks over and picks it up. The English patient stares at him, stunned, and Caravaggio walks out of the room.
The English patient is just as surprised to see the dog as he is to see Caravaggio. He thought they were alone at the villa and had no idea anyone else was there. The dog, and the presence of another, offers some normalcy and is evidence of the slow healing that is taking place at the villa after the war.
In the kitchen, Caravaggio gets the dog some water. He thinks of the villa as Hana’s house, so he is careful not to disturb or move anything. He thinks back to the day he lost his thumbs. They had handcuffed him to a wooden table, and after the nurse cut off his thumbs, his hands slid easily out of the handcuffs. He fell from his chair and rolled under the table, bleeding profusely. Afterward, he noticed everyone’s thumbs, almost like the Germans had instilled him with envy. But mostly he just felt old, like they had given him something to slow him down.
The war has aged Caravaggio, which is evidence of the trauma he has suffered. Like Hana, Caravaggio is likely shell-shocked, or suffering from post-traumatic stress, which is why he randomly, and frequently, is taken back to the war and the horrors he endured there. His memories are sudden, and often unrelated to what is going on, which suggests that Caravaggio’s trauma has consumed him.
Later that night, Hana pulls The Last of the Mohicans off of the library shelf and begins to write on a blank page near the back. She writes about Caravaggio, whom she has always loved, even though he must be at least 45 years old now. When she is done writing, Hana closes the book and puts it back on the highest possible shelf.
By writing in The Last of the Mohicans, Hana and her own story becomes part of the book. There is an interconnectedness between people and history in the novel through the books they read and the stories they tell, and Hana’s personal writing in James Fenimore Cooper’s book is evidence of this connection.
That night, after the English patient falls asleep, Hana slips from his room and goes downstairs. She suddenly feels claustrophobic, and a storm is brewing in the distance. Downstairs, she removes the old grey sheet covering the piano. As lightning steaks the sky, Hana sits down and begins to play. She thinks about her mother teaching her piano back in Canada, and as lightning illuminates the room, she notices that two soldiers have entered the villa. Hana can see that one man wears a turban, and she nods at them, continuing the song. Later, Caravaggio returns to the villa and finds Hana making sandwiches in the kitchen with two sappers.
The soldier’s turban immediately alerts Hana to his difference from her, and his turban is thus a physical symbol of his native identity and cultural differences. In this way, Hana does not notice the soldier for who he is, necessarily—she notices him for the reasons he is different, or “other,” from her. This difference is further evidence of the impact of British colonialism on the colonized, as the first and most distinguishing aspect Hana notices about the soldier is that he obviously isn’t European.