Books help Ondaatje’s characters to understand and interpret the world and each other, but books also symbolize the incredible connection between personal narratives and history within the novel. Books are important on many levels in The English Patient. The English patient, the title character and protagonist, carries a worn and heavily-annotated copy of Herodotus’s Histories, and his close friend, Madox, cherishes a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Books and stories are profoundly powerful in the novel and are often described as a life-sustaining force. For example, when Hana reads books from the villa’s library to the English patient, he swallows “her words like water,” and whenever he enters the home of new friend, he goes directly to the bookshelf and “inhales” the books. Hana even uses books from the villa’s library to rebuild the destroyed staircase, suggesting that books are not only a part of people but are essential to the building of the world as well.
Within the English patient’s copy of The Histories, a historical book that focuses on personal narratives, are his personal notes and thoughts, and he has glued in snippets that are important to him: parts of other books, Bible passages, important maps, and even a fern. The English patient’s copy of The Histories thus represents his own history as well as that of others, much like the copy of The Last of the Mohicans Hana uses as a journal. After reading the book by James Fenimore Cooper, Hana turns to a blank page near the back and writes her own story before closing the book and replacing it on the highest shelf of the villa’s library. According to the English patient, people are “communal books, communal histories,” carrying stories of the past into the future. Ondaatje argues that these personal narratives, often overlooked in the broad view of history, are crucial to understanding both the past and the present.
Books Quotes in The English Patient
She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.
If he were a hero in a painting, he could claim just sleep. But as even she had said, he was the brownness of a rock, the brownness of a muddy storm-fed river. And something in him made him step back from even the naive innocence of such a remark. The successful defusing of a bomb ended novels. Wise white fatherly men shook hands, were acknowledged, and limped away, having been coaxed out of solitude for this special occasion. But he was a professional. And he remained the foreigner, the Sikh.
“I have seen editions of The Histories with a sculpted portrait on the cover. Some statue found in a French museum. But I never imagine Herodotus this way. I see him more as one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seeds, consuming everything without suspicion, piecing together a mirage. ‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—[…]”
He looked back at the others, peered around the room and caught the gaze of the middle-aged secretary. She watched him sternly. An Indian boy. He smiled and walked towards the bookshelves. Again he touched nothing. At one point he put his nose close to a volume called Raymond, or Life and Death by Sir Oliver Hodge. He found another, similar title. Pierre, or the Ambiguities. He turned and caught the woman’s eyes on him again. He felt as guilty as if he had put the book in his pocket. She had probably never seen a turban before. The English! They expect you to fight for them but won’t talk to you. Singh. And the ambiguities.
He was riding deeper into thick rain. Because he had loved the face on the ceiling he had loved the words. As he had believed in the burned man and the meadows of civilisation he tended. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Solomon were in the burned man’s bedside book, his holy book, whatever he had loved glued into his own. He had passed his book to the sapper, and the sapper had said we have a Holy Book too.