The English patient tells Hana and Caravaggio, that when he first met Katharine, she was a married woman. When Geoffrey Clifton arrived in the desert to join the English patient’s expedition, they were all surprised when he arrived with his new wife. The couple went back to Cairo for a month, and when they returned, Katharine was quiet and kept to herself. She had begun to “discover herself,” which the English patient tells Hana was particularly “painful to watch” because Geoffrey was completely blind to it.
The fact that Geoffrey is blind to Katharine’s efforts to “discover herself” suggests that he is largely neglectful of her. Katharine is obviously going through a difficult and defining time in her life, and Geoffrey doesn’t even notice. The fact that this is “painful to watch” implies that Katharine is deeply affected by Geoffrey’s neglect, which makes her affair with the English patient all the more understandable.
Katharine became obsessed with the desert and began to read everything she could about it. The English patient was 15 years older than her, and did not “believe in permanence” or in relationships that lasted a lifetime, but Katharine was smarter than him. Once, when Katharine ran out of books to read, she asked the English patient for his copy of The Histories. He had refused, claiming it contained his personal notes, and he needed it when he went into the desert.
The English patient’s dislike of “permanence” mirrors the impermanence of the desert, but his comment suggests that this isn’t the smartest way to live one’s life. Katharine believes in relationships and lasting love, and the English patient openly admits she is smarter than he is. This suggests that the English patient regrets his previous approach to love and relationships, which has always kept others at a distance, and now considers this approach wrong.
One night, Geoffrey asked Katharine to read a poem out loud, but she wanted to read something else. The English patient handed her his book of Herodotus, and she read the story of Candaules, one the English patient has always just skimmed over, in which Candaules falls “passionately” in love with his wife. The English patient had always used The Histories to learn about geography, but Katharine used it “as a window to her life.” As she read, the English patient fell in love with her. “Words,” the English patient says to Caravaggio, interrupting his own story. “They have power.”
This is before Katharine’s affair with the English patient, when she is upset over Geoffrey’s neglect. Katharine reads the story of Candaules—a king of Lydia, an ancient kingdom, during the 7th century B.C.E.—hoping that Geoffrey will fall “passionately” in love with her as well. This illustrates the connection between people and the “power” of words and stories. Katharine uses literature “as a window to her life,” meaning she uses literature to give meaning to her unfulfilling life and express to herself.
When Katharine and Geoffrey were not in the desert, they were in Cairo doing work for the English. Geoffrey had an uncle in the government, although the English patient was not sure of the exact nature of Geoffrey’s job. Katharine and Geoffrey would frequent parties and dinners, and even though the English patient hated such social gatherings, he went just to be near Katharine.
The English patient’s uncertainty of Geoffrey’s role foreshadows the fact that Geoffrey may have been concealing his true identity, much like Caravaggio suspects the English patient of doing now. The English patient sacrificing his discomfort in order to spend time around Katharine again demonstrates love’s capability to dictate people’s decisions and behavior.
While in Cairo, the English patient worked for the Department of Egyptology and wrote a book about his explorations. It was a short book, only 70 pages, and he had wanted to dedicate it to Katharine, even though he did not end up doing so. He grew cold and distant in Katharine’s company until the day she approached him and propositioned him. Their affair heated up, and the English patient became obsessed with Katharine’s body, calling the little hollow at the base of her throat “the Bosphorus.”
The English patient’s obsession with Katharine’s body mirrors the obsession Hana has later for the English patient’s body. Just as the English patient loves the hollow at Katharine’s throat, Hana loves the hollow below the English patient’s ribs. This implies that love is as physical as it is emotional, and that the two are closely linked.
Although the English patient did not know it, Geoffrey Clifton was deeply involved with the English government, and they knew all about the English patient’s affair with Katharine. The English patient had ignored all of Katharine’s remarks about Geoffrey’s relatives, but Madox had tried to warn him about Geoffrey’s connection to the English. Like the English patient’s book of Herodotus, Madox carried Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and used the book to try to explain Geoffrey’s connection to the British government. Half of Moscow and Petersburg were relatives or friends with Oblonsky, a character in Tolstoy’s novel, and Madox said it was the same with Geoffrey.
This again illustrates how literature and stories help characters in the novel interpret and understand their world. Madox uses Anna Karenina to try to convince the English patient that Geoffrey is not who he says he is. Furthermore, Anna Karenina is a famous novel about an affair that ends in Anna Karenina’s death, which is significant in context with Katharine and the English patient’s adulterous affair and Katharine’s subsequent death.
Katharine loved words, the English patient says to Caravaggio. In words Katharine found “clarity,” “shape,” and “reason,” but the English patient says that words only bend emotions, “like sticks in water.” Katharine eventually returned to Geoffrey, and the English patient returned to the desert. He had told Madox nothing specific about the woman he was seeing, only that she was a widow in Cairo. “Would’ve like to have met her,” Madox said to him in 1939, before Madox pulled out his desert revolver and shot himself in a church during a sermon honoring the war.
Ironically, Madox has met Katharine and knows her very well, he simply doesn’t know about her affair with the English patient. The English patient’s claim that words bend emotions “like sticks in water” hearkens to Cleanth Brooks, a 20th century writer and critic’s, definition of irony. Brooks says that irony is like a stick submerged in water—it appears bent but isn’t, which highlights the difference between expectation and reality. The English patient expects to find "clarity” and “reason” in words like Katharine does, but he doesn’t.
As Madox was leaving for England, he stopped and turned around. “This is called the vascular sizood,” he said to the English patient, laughing and pointing to the hollow near the base of his neck. He left, carrying his book of Tolstoy. Once in England, Madox entered a church near Somerset with his wife, and when the priest began to preach in support of the war and the men who joined the battle, Madox shot himself, dying instantly. “Yes,” the English patient says, “Madox was a man who died because of nations.”
The English patient’s last memory of Madox reflects the fondness and love he has for his friend, and this memory is intricately linked with the English patient’s love for Katharine as well. Like the English patient, Madox has lived a nationless life in the desert, and he chooses death over aligning himself with any of the conflicting nations in the war.
On Madox’s last night in Cairo, the English patient finally talked him into going into a bar, and there they saw Katharine and Geoffrey Clifton. The English patient was drunk and invented a dance called “the Bosphorus hug.” He was devastated by the fact that Madox was leaving Cairo, and he hid his feelings in alcohol, obnoxiously trying to dance with everyone. He grabbed Katharine and “a maniac’s tango ensued.” The English patient spent very little time in Cairo and seemed like a distant man to many; yet there he was, dancing with Katharine Clifton.
The dance “the Bosphorus hug” refers to the name the English patient has given the hollow at the base of Katharine’s neck, and it is more evidence of his love for her. When he and Katharine dance “the Bosphorus hug,” it is a “maniac’s tango,” which recalls love’s power to drive one insane, just as it later does to Geoffrey after he discovers Katharine’s affair.
During this time, the only connection the English patient had with the cities of the outside world was through Herodotus’s book. Soon, even the idea of a city became foreign to the English patient. In a phenomenon known as “geomorphology,” he had selected a place “unconscious of ancestry” to discover himself.
This, too, reflects the English patient’s nationless identity. He must go to a faraway desert to find out who he truly is, and he discovers that this has little to do with ancestry. Kip does this in a way, as well, as he finds out who he truly is in Italy—but he also discovers that one’s ancestry cannot be escaped, and he ultimately returns to India.
In the Cave of Swimmers, after Geoffrey had crashed his plane, the English patient placed Katharine, grimacing in pain, on a stretched out parachute. Katharine always wore makeup, so the English patient “stole the colours” from the cave wall, and put it onto Katharine’s face. He combed his hands through her hair and started a fire to keep her warm. He told her that he would not be able to carry her out of the desert but would soon return with help. When he left her, he gave her his Herodotus book. It was September of 1939.
The English patient’s gestures toward Katharine reflect his love for her. From fixing her hair to taking paint from an ancient cave painting to use as makeup, he obviously cares very much about her, and this is further implied when he leaves her his copy of The Histories. Earlier in the novel, the English patient refuses to let her keep the book for any length of time, but now he freely gives it too her in a symbolic gesture of love and sacrifice.
A man can only walk the speed of a camel, which is about two and a half miles per hour, the English patient tells Caravaggio. He walked for three days without food. When he arrived in El Taj, English military jeeps surrounded him immediately, and they refused to listen to his pleas to go get Katharine.
The British military surrounds the English patient because they fear he may be spy, which again suggests that he cannot really escape his nationality, whether real or perceived.
Caravaggio suddenly wants to leave the villa. He is only a thief, and he doesn’t belong here with the English patient, a man he is now convinced is Almásy. Caravaggio is beginning to believe that it really doesn’t matter which side the English patient supported during the war, but Caravaggio still needs to know if he murdered Katharine Clifton, and he asks him as much now. The English patient assures him that he did not, and Caravaggio tells him that he only asks because Geoffrey Clifton was no ordinary Englishman.
Caravaggio’s change of heart that it now makes little difference whether or not the English patient is really Almásy suggests that he, too, is beginning to see the world in a nationless way. At this point, Caravaggio cares only if Almásy is a murderer, which could have further implications on Hana’s safety. Like the Bedouin, nationality is becoming insignificant to Caravaggio.
Geoffrey Clifton had been ordered by British Intelligence to keep an eye on Almásy and his expeditions into the desert, Caravaggio says. The English knew that the desert would eventually become a theater of the war, and Geoffrey was an aerial photographer. British Intelligence thought that Geoffrey’s death was suspicious (they still do, Caravaggio says) and they had always known about Almásy’s affair with Katharine. British Intelligence had been waiting for Almásy in Cairo, but he never arrived and instead went back into the desert.
Geoffrey Clifton is likely based on an Englishman named Sir Robert Clayton, a pilot who accompanied the real Almásy into the desert in 1932. Clayton died of acute polio in the Gilf Kebir in 1932—not in a plane crash, like Geoffrey in the novel. However, Clayton’s wife, Dorothy, was a pilot as well, and, like Katharine, she was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1939.
The English patient asks Caravaggio if he came to the villa to finally apprehend him. No, Caravaggio says. He came to find Hana, since he has known her since before the war. In fact, the truth is that Caravaggio has grown too fond of Almásy to turn him over to the authorities. He sits facing the burned and dying man, but no words come to him. Almásy begs Caravaggio to speak to him and asks if he is “just a book” to be filled with morphine and read.
The English patient’s question confirms Caravaggio’s suspicion that he is, in fact, Almásy. Almásy has told Caravaggio his entire story—thus, he is “a book” to be read—but Caravaggio tells him very little about himself. Like the English patient, Caravaggio struggles with his identity during the war. Both Italy and Hungary sided with the Germans during the war, an allegiance witch which both Caravaggio and Almásy seem to struggle.
Caravaggio tells the English patient that he is just a thief who was “legitimized” during the war. He stole documents and various other things for British Intelligence, and he had first heard about Almásy while in the Middle East. British Intelligence worried that Almásy would use his knowledge of the desert to help the Germans, Caravaggio says. The English patient is quiet for a moment and then tells Caravaggio that he only did it so he could get back to Katharine.
Caravaggio struggles with his identity as a thief just as much as he struggles with his identity as an Italian. He is only “legitimized” during the war because his skills come in handy to the Allies. Obviously, Almásy did exactly what the British feared, but he didn’t do it out of malice or hate. He guides the German spy to get back to Katharine, whom he still deeply loves, even though he knew she had to be dead.
Caravaggio tells the English patient that British Intelligence knew about Eppler long before he got to Cairo. They had broken a German code and were waiting for Eppler when he arrived in Egypt. Caravaggio says that they were waiting for Almásy, too, and planned to kill him, but he disappeared into the desert. British Intelligence was convinced that Almásy had killed Geoffrey Clifton because of his affair with Katharine. Caravaggio says that Almásy became Britain’s enemy not when he agreed to help the Germans, but when he began his affair with Katharine.
The real-life Almásy really did guide a German spy named Eppler across the desert during World War II. The Germans were looking to plant Nazis in Egypt, which at the time was held by Britain. British Intelligence arrested Eppler not long after he arrived in Cairo, but Almásy was never apprehended and safely made it back to Hungary without being caught.
The English patient had to return to the Gilf Kebir, he tells Caravaggio, and Geoffrey was to pick him up in his plane. When Geoffrey arrived, he circled around in his plane and flew directly at the English patient, crashing into the sand nearby. The English patient ran to the plane and found Katharine in the passenger seat. Geoffrey was killed in the crash, and later that night, the English patient buried his body.
Just as Katharine fears, Geoffrey “goes mad” because of her affair with the Almásy, which reflects Ondaatje’s overarching argument that love can drive one to extreme jealousy and even insanity. Katharine and Almásy’s affair has been over for some time, but Geoffrey is still not able to handle it.
Katharine was not killed in the crash, but she was badly injured. The English patient pulled her from the mangled plane and carried her to the Cave of Swimmers. “It is important to die in holy places,” the English patient tells Caravaggio, and that is why Madox killed himself in the church in Somerset. Madox thought the church “had lost its holiness, and he committed what he believed was a holy act.”
Madox’s believes that the church has “lost its holiness” because the priest very obviously supports the war, which Madox views as an unholy and violent thing. Madox’s suicide is his protest against this misuse of religion, or loss of holiness.
The English patient tells Caravaggio that everyone dies “containing a richness of lovers and tribes.” People are “communal histories, communal books,” the English patient says. The night that Geoffrey Clifton crashed his plane, the English patient carried Katharine into the desert, into the “communal book of moonlight.”
Even though it is undoubtedly painful for Almásy to talk about Katharine, he begins to heal by sharing this “richness of lovers and tribes” though his stories. His comment that people are “communal histories, communal books” implies that real history lives in personal stories, which must be appreciated in order to understand the past and the present.