Much of The English Patient takes place in the Gilf Kebir, a desert plateau in North Africa, and this desert landscape is symbolic of the English patient, László Almásy’s, lack of a national identity. Almásy spends most of the 1930s in the Gilf Kebir looking for the mythical city, Zerzura, and he falls in love with the isolated impermanence of the desert. According to Almásy, the desert cannot be claimed or owned. It is “a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East.” The desert’s legendary windstorms bury and erase anything standing still, and the remote location means that one’s nationality becomes “insignificant.”
In the desert, Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer, becomes nationless and soon grows to “hate nations.” Almásy claims one is “deformed by nation-states,” and his good friend and fellow desert explorer, Madox, dies “because of nations.” While Almásy does his best to become nationless like desert, he ultimately discovers that escaping one’s national identity isn’t so easy. After Katharine, Almásy’s former lover, is injured deep in the Gilf Kebir and Almásy must go for help, the British military refuses to listen to him because he is Hungarian, and Katharine dies waiting. Almásy later leads a German spy across the desert into Cairo during World War II, and after a plane crash leaves Almásy burned and nearly dead while trying to recover Katharine’s body, he must conceal his identity to avoid capture and certain death. Even when Almásy is burned beyond recognition and being cared for by Hana, a stranger for all intents and purposes, he is still unable to conceal his national identity. Unlike the boundaryless and unclaimed desert, Almásy is never able to fully severe ties with his nationality, which suggests the link between identity and nationality is one that cannot be broken.
The Desert Quotes in The English Patient
“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—[…]”
By 1932, Bagnold was finished and Madox and the rest of us were everywhere. Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. Looking for Zerzura. 1932 and 1933 and 1934. Not seeing each other for months. Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. 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. Madox died because of nations.
The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of power and correspondence with the Geographical Society. On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever.