As Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient takes place during World War II, nationality is an exceedingly important theme throughout the novel. Hana is a Canadian nurse who diligently cares for the wounded soldiers of the Allied powers, and Caravaggio is an Italian immigrant to Canada who spent time in Canada before the war and fights on behalf of the Allies. Kip is an Indian sapper and bomb specialist who embraces Western culture, and the English patient—who is actually a Hungarian desert explorer named László Almásy—is an amnesiac who hides both his national identity and his service to Germans during the war behind his flawed memory. While the English patient is unable to remember his name or nationality, he remembers nearly everything else, and he has a particular dislike for nations and the dissent and bias that comes from separately-defined national identities. “I came to hate nations,” the English patient tells Hana as she attempts to nurse him back to health after he is nearly killed and burned beyond all recognition in a plane crash in the North African desert. Ondaatje draws a parallel between the English patient’s hatred of nations and the events of World War II, through which he ultimately argues that divisions of nationality are largely to blame for the senseless violence of the war.
As the English patient recovers after a nearly fatal place crash, he tells Hana all about his life as a desert explorer. The English patient loves the desert and its ability to “erase everything” in sandstorms, including one’s national identity. The people who made up the English patient’s expedition team into the desert were German, English, Hungarian, and African; however, their national identities were “insignificant” to the desert tribes of North Africa, who had never heard of their faraway countries. “Gradually we became nationless,” the English patient tells Hana of those in his desert expedition. In the isolation of the desert, one’s national identity means very little and is eventually erased. Instead of separate identities from different countries, they were all just people exploring the desert. The English patient tells Hana he didn’t want his name to exist in the desert. “Erase the family name!” the English patient says. “Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” By the start of the war, the English patient had been in the desert for over 10 years and “it was easy for [him] to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.” The English patient feels trapped by his national identity, but he is completely free in the desert.
Not only does the English patient prefer the anonymity of the desert, he specifically points at national identity as a main source of dissent, violence, and pain within his life. The English patient’s prized possession is a worn copy of The Histories, a book by the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, which the English patient continually rereads and annotates in the margins. He explains the book to Hana, describing it as “cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—how people betray each other for the sake of nations.” According to both Herodotus and the English patient, nations and nationality have always been the primary reason for hatred, conflict, and war. As the English patient explains his distaste for nations, he claims that the world is “deformed by nation-states.” To the English patient, national identity is not something that brings people together or instills a sense of unity; rather, it is something that alienates people and turns them ugly by breeding strife and war. Furthermore, the English patient blames nations for the death of Madox, his close friend and exploration partner. “Madox died because of nations,” the English patient tells Hana. Madox returns home to England during the war and attended church with his wife. During the sermon, in which the minister speaks in honor of the English fighting in the war, Madox pulls out his revolver and kills himself in the middle of the church. Like the English patient, Madox was accustomed to living a nationless life, and he chooses death rather than to fight with the conflicting nations of the war.
At the same time, the novel also makes clear how impractical it is to try to live a life free from the compulsions and powers of nations and nationality. The English patient himself is in the end caught up with the forces of nationality. After Geoffrey attempts to kill Almásy in the North African Desert after finding out about the affair with Katharine, and instead kills himself and badly injures Katharine, Almásy brings Katharine to shelter in the Cave of Swimmers and then heads out to get help. But when he arrives at a town where he might get help, he is instead arrested on suspicion of being a spy—and Katharine dies in the cave, alone. Later, in order to get back to at least recover Katharine’s body, Almásy, agrees to guide the Germans in the desert. Thus, even as the novel seems to agree with Almásy’s condemnation of nations and nationality, it suggests through Almásy’s fate, the fates of all the characters caught up in the war, and the fates of all the historical figures depicted in the “betrayals” of The Histories, that the ties and bonds of nationality are impossible to escape.
War and Nationality ThemeTracker
War and Nationality Quotes in The English Patient
He sits with his hands below the table, watching the girl eat. He still prefers to eat alone, though he always sits with Hana during meals. Vanity, he thinks. Mortal vanity. She has seen him from a window eating with his hands as he sits on one of the thirty-six steps by the chapel, not a fork or a knife in sight, as if he were learning to eat like someone from the East. In his greying stubble-beard, in his dark jacket, she sees the Italian finally in him. She notices this more and more.
The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil, had the look of a besieged fortress, the limbs of most of the statues blown off during the first days of shelling. There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms. She worked along the edges of them aware always of unexploded mines. In one soil-rich area beside the house she began to garden with a furious passion that could come only to someone who had grown up in a city. In spite of the burned earth, in spite of the lack of water. Someday there would be a bower of limes, rooms of green light.
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.
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.
He was accustomed to his invisibility. In England he was ignored in the various barracks, and he came to prefer that. The self-sufficiency and privacy Hana saw in him later were caused not just by his being a sapper in the Italian campaign. It was as much a result of being the anonymous member of another race, a part of the invisible world. He had built up defences of character against all that, trusting only those who befriended him.
He will sit up and flip his hair forward, and begin to rub the length of it with a towel. She imagines all of Asia through the gestures of this one man. The way he lazily moves, his quiet civilisation. He speaks of warrior saints and she now feels he is one, stern and visionary, pausing only in these rare times of sunlight to be godless, informal, his head back again on the table so the sun can dry his spread hair like grain in a fan-shaped straw basket. Although he is a man from Asia who has in these last years of war assumed English fathers, following their codes like a dutiful son.
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.
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?
My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said. Never shake hands with them. But we, oh, we were easily impressed— by speeches and medals and your ceremonies. What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?
Before light failed he stripped the tent of all military objects, all bomb disposal equipment, stripped all insignia off his uniform. Before lying down he undid the turban and combed his hair out and then tied it up into a topknot and lay back, saw the light on the skin of the tent slowly disperse, his eyes holding onto the last blue of light, hearing the drop of wind into windlessness and then hearing the swerve of the hawks as their wings thudded. And all the delicate noises of the air.