Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a fictional account of historic events, and several of his characters—such as the English patient, László Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer who guided German spies across the North African desert during World War II—are based on actual historical figures. The novel unfolds in a series of stories told by the main characters, including Almásy, his Canadian nurse, Hana, an Italian-Canadian thief named Caravaggio, and Kip, an Indian sapper, after they all converge at an abandoned Italian villa near the end of World War II. Almásy has been badly burned in a plane crash and suffers from amnesia, and he is known by Hana and the others as simply the English patient. In the English patient’s possession is a copy of The Histories, a book by the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, which the English patient continually reads, rereads, and writes in. The relationship between books and stories is a repeated theme in the novel. Through the stories read and told in The English Patient, Ondaatje effectively argues that literature offers not just entertainment but a way to understand and shape the world, and that history is best kept and told through personal experiences and stories, not through official records and history books.
In addition to Almásy’s copy of The Histories, Ondaatje mentions several other literary works, which reflects the importance of storytelling in the characters’ lives. Further, the novel shows how characters uses these texts as a means of understanding the world, and of creating understanding between each other. Madox carries a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina across the North African desert, and tries to explain to Almásy the people they meet in terms of Tolstoy’s novel. Madox interprets his unfamiliar surroundings through Tolstoy, and he tries to share this with Almásy. As Hana watches Kip befriend the English patient, she understands their strange friendship through “a reversal” of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, only “the young student is now Indian, [and] the wise old teacher is English.” Hana has been reading the novel to the English patient, and like Madox, she turns to the novel to better appreciate her surroundings. Hana also uses a blank page at the back of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to keep a personal journal. Like Almásy’s annotated copy of The Histories, Hana’s life and experiences mix and mingle with book until they are one. It is not just the characters who use these texts as a way to relate to the world and each other, though. Ondaatje purposefully included each of the titles mentioned, and the novel of The English Patient also exists in relation to those titles. Anna Karenina, for instance, is perhaps the most famous novel about an affair ever written, referenced in this novel about a passionate affair. The English Patient doesn’t always use texts as mere reference points, but rather seems to be engaged in a kind of argument with those previous texts. For instance, Kipling’s Kim is a coming-of-age story about an Irish orphan in India who, through a series of adventures, grows up to become an important spy in service to the British Empire. It is a novel that portrays the Empire as great, and the British presence in India as welcome and mutually beneficial. The title of the novel and the author’s last name closely resemble Kip’s own name, which is purposeful. But Kip’s story is a kind of corrective to Kim, in which Kip, an Indian, has adventures not in India but in Europe, and comes to see the evil of the British Empire and its fundamentally racist and exploitative attitudes toward India. The English Patient treats books seriously, and sees itself as existing in conversation with those books, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not. “Words, Caravaggio,” Almásy says at one point. “They have a power.” Both The English Patient, and its characters, exist in a world in which words—in which stories—give the world meaning.
While storytelling and literature serves as a means for Ondaatje’s characters to enrich and interpret their lives and surroundings, there is a direct connection between stories and history. According to the English patient, whenever he is left alone in someone’s house, he always goes to the bookcase, “pulls down a volume and inhales it. So history enter us,” he says. Both Almásy and Ondaatje draw a parallel between stories and history, which is often relayed through the telling and reading of stories. When Almásy falls in love with Katharine Clifton, the love of his life, he does so as she read aloud from The Histories. She chooses a passage of the book that Almásy usually passes over, but by the time she has finished reading, he has completely fallen in love with her. Almásy’s connection to both history and literature is reflected in his love for Katharine. But Almásy’s copy of The Histories plays another role in the way that the novel engages with history. The Histories, as it turns out, is a rather odd book of history. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it a book of historical stories, rather than a book of straight history—it concerns itself with the stories of people, with personal histories, rather than the sweep of big historical events. While Almásy’s fate in the novel is never actually revealed, Hana and Caravaggio decide that if and when the English patient dies from his burns, they will bury everything except his copy of The Histories. In death, then, Almásy’s story will live on through Herodotus’s book, his own personal history and interpretations become tied up and preserved along with those in the book. Almásy tells Caravaggio at one point that all people are “communal histories, communal books,” who carry stories of the past into the future. The English Patient seems to suggest an even bolder idea: that such personal histories—which are often overlooked in the broad view of “history”—are vital to understanding both the past and the present.
History, Words, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
History, Words, and Storytelling 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.
“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.
“Let me tell you a story,” Caravaggio says to Hana. ‘There was a Hungarian named Almásy, who worked for the Germans during the war. He flew a bit with the Afrika Korps, but he was more valuable than that. In the 1930s he had been one of the great desert explorers. He knew every water hole and had helped map the Sand Sea. He knew all about the desert. He knew all about dialects. Does this sound familiar? Between the two wars he was always on expeditions out of Cairo. One was to search for Zerzura— the lost oasis. Then when war broke out he joined the Germans. In 1941 he became a guide for spies, taking them across the desert into Cairo. What I want to tell you is, I think the English patient is not English.”
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.
She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water. She returned to her husband.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography— to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.
I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind of knot in a tie I was out. Was it just ships that gave you such power? Was it, as my brother said, because you had the histories and printing presses?
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.