The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Well, I have to say, the book is quite different from the movie. One can regard them as separated work. Though they both are based on the same plot and characters, the way they present the story, the pattern and tone, the main focus of the story telling are all different. To me the movie is more like a Romance but the book is a literature masterpiece discussing human nature and history. One of the obvious difference is, the book hardly mention Katherine until Chapter IV and the affair is not fully revealed until Chapter IX. The deadly affair between Almásy and Katherine is least importance in the book but it is the main part in the movie.

I love the movie but I adore the book. Here I just want to discuss the book as I have done close reading, word by word.

1, Lies and ownership

The thing Katherine hates most, is a lie. While what Almásy hates most is ownership. Ironically, Katherine has to lie to her husband and all other people because she is in love with Almásy. She hates lie but she can’t be honest. Almásy regards himself as man without nations but when he is in love, he is marked with love, longing for complete ownership of his lover. This reveals the terrible force of love and desire.

Love is so intense and destructive. Love is more like a war, there are spies everywhere; there are lies in order to be safe, betrayals that lead to mutual destruction. And the desire to own the lover, may bring the lovers more close but the secret will be known and cursed will be placed.

“They are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire…a love story…means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing…it is a consuming of oneself and the past.”

When we ask the question: why there are wars? We might instead ask: why there is love but we have to lie in order to love and why love is so painful and destructive sometimes?

War, love, hate, are they brothers and sisters with same blood?

2, Boundary

When we talk about boundary, we are not merely referring to physical boundary like a country boundary, a wall, a fence.

Boundary exists everything: there are boundary between races, between history and present, between people in love, between you and me.

In this book, it mainly deals with boundary between nations and boundary between lovers, both are intercrossing and correlating.

  • boundary between nations

Almásy hates ownership, claiming he is not owned by any nations and he is “International bastards”. In the vast desert, “who was the enemy? Who were the allies?“

Death can erase nationality: “English and Americans and Indians and Australians and Canadians advanced north and the shell traces exploded and dissolved in the air” so what is the use of nationality?

“I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states…the desert could not be claimed or owned-it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed…Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert…by the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.”

Yes we are so used to draw lines between each other and label each other by genders, nations, races, background and so on. But there is no clear draw and we kind of sharing the same thing and inwardly we are the same races, like the desert people are all water people.

See Sapper’s humming of Western songs, see the love between Kip and Hana, see the talk between the English patient and the young Indian sapper, see the story of Kim written by an English writer…these all remind us that there is no boundary, the boundary should not be exist. All are in one and one cover all.

“A man not of your own blood can break upon your emotions more than someone of your own blood. As if falling into the arms of a stranger you discover mirror of your choice.”

“And now, on this continent, the war having travelled elsewhere, the nunneries and churches that were turned briefly into hospitals are solitary, cut off in the hills of Tuscany and Umbria. They hold the remnants of war societies, small moraines left by a vast glacier. All around them now is the holy forest.”

  • boundary between lovers

Katherine comes from England and she is a woman get use to civilization–songs, dance, poem, garden.

“Her passion for the desert was temporary. She’d come to love its sternness because of him, wanting to understand his comfort in its solitude. She was always happier in rain, in bathrooms steaming with liquid air, in sleepy wetness…her fingers like starfish.” She is a woman of water from head to toe. But as she loves she breaks the boundary, steps out from her wall and embrace something she never encounter before.

On the other hand, Almásy, “His hunger wished to burn down all social rules, all courtesy…he has been disassembled by her—he wants to break the walls…claiming this is my shoulder…to fall in love and be disassembled…”

They both lose innocent but gain new source of life—“we will either find or lose our souls”.

In the cave, they had come together…”as lovers, rolling away the boulder they had placed between themselves for some social law neither had believed in.”

Desert can absorb water in a second, the moisture was stored deep under the dry sand. It indicated the intensity of love between Katherine and Almásy. Desert and water are eventual combined as one, just like Katherine and Almásy break down the walls and rules and love each other as part of their life.

The love story between Katherine and Almásy is a past tense. Similar thing happen between Hana and Kip, a Canadian nurse and Indian sapper. The very impossible becomes possible when lines are crossed and walls are broken down, boundary comes into non-exist.

3, Barbarism vs civilization

There is reflection in the book on what is barbarism and what is civilization. Just like the desert is so much different from garden at Kew, desert tribe people are so much different from people from civilized countries. The later regard the former as barbarians, claiming they don’t know love, thirsty for brutal war and blood and have neither science or real religion.

Is it true? Is it justified?

If people from western countries are more advanced and more civilized, why they raise wars against each other, why they kill each other without fear and tear?

And the experience of being saved and cured by tribe people, leads Almásy to deeper reflection.

“(the wizard) raises his arms and drag strength into his body from the universe…(the man hang bottles in both his arm, when he spread his arms, with shinning bottle reflecting sunlight, his two arms look like a pair of wings) the figure resembled…archangels.”

This image looks quite bizarre, you need to use imagination to picture it. The wizard conducts a healing dance and placed his cold hands on the burned body. The man with bottles resembles a vessel filled with water, indicates the healing process like baptism–rebirth, cure, salvation. God is so powerful and everywhere, even in the desert, among the so called barbarians.

“There is God only in the desert, he wanted to acknowledge that now. Outside of this there was just trade and power, money and war. Financial and military despot shaped the world.”

And this leads to the next discussion of what is faith.

4, Faith

There are many metaphors from which one can easily guess the biblical meaning. For examples, “Altar of hammock”-dead, rebirth, life; “flood” and “locust” are events in the bible; “Cathedral” repeats many times and this is where Madox choose to end his life; “Hana carried a crucifix to build a scarecrow” …

Why Hana sticks with the English patient and refuses to leave? There are something that trouble her –her wish to escape reality? Has trouble to go back home knowing she will never see her father?

“She (Hana) has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint.” The Christ symbol is very obvious. She might regard the English Patient as a way to redeem her guilt and by cleaning his body, she is cleaning her own soul.

There is another very important aspect of topic concerning faith—Death.

“Death is regarded as gift from heaven by the tribe people”

“He wanted to slip into his own death by imitating its climate and light”

“Death means you are in the third person”

“Died in a holy place, like Madox”

Ok, people may have different religion or have different gods or deities to worship. But there is something that overpower all these. May it called Nature or God, there is something we behold and believe in. Our attitude to dead, reflect how we try to know the truth and how to hold on our faith. Death is not terrible if you have faith–treat this as gift from the heaven, as a nice and warm sleep, as a change of narrative, as the way we escape from the filthy world. It is hard to define fait, just as it is hard to define civilization and barbarism. Author might want us to think outside our comfort zone, to know more about other culture and other race, in order to break the false faith.

5, Water is everywhere

There are words related to water repeated throughout the book. If you count and mark them (which I have done), you will be amazed how frequently you come across them.


Desert-sand sea

Most of all she wished for a river they could swim in.

Taking in sand like a sinking boat takes in water

The moon is on him like skin-a sheaf of water

The only running water in this whole villa is in this fountain

Flight crash-ship wreck

Words- water

Words bent emotions like sticks water

Hills that torn by fire shell-Battleship at sea

Information like a sea, map of sea floor


  • From the point of universal history

In order to understand frequent mentioned desert as sea, desert people as water people, you have to know a little bit of the geography of Sahara. Lucky that I love natural history and just finish study of geography before I read this book.


Sahara, once been an ancient sea. But as the land uplifted, water subsided with water dropping to a swallow sea. Then eventually, Swap turned to sands at least 3 million years ago. Ancient lakes and rivers kept shrinking and change course, and thus tribe people keep moving with water. The cave of swimmer reflects the happy time before water completely dried up except isolated oasis. But water didn’t disappear, it sinks far below the surface as deep reservoirs as sandstone blocking the sun and keep the water. That is why people like Almásy still believe there are lakes and searching for them.

And desert is constantly changing. Sahara has changed more than once. It has 2000 years circle. After 2000 years, desert will change into land with water, but another 2000 years, it will change back to desert.

Now you can understand the relationship between desert and water and you can capture the forever changeable nature of earth and its living habitants.

  • Extended meaning of water

Water, drive people to move, to change, to break the boundary, to demarcation.

“I must build a raft…here I was in the dry sands, I knew I was among water people…Constant movement of tribe people when searching for water-demarcation…In Tassili I have seen rock engravings from a time when the Sahara people hunts water horse from reed boats…I saw walls were covered with paintings of swimmers. Here there had been a lake…”

Water represents something that is very precious or are hard to find while easy to be lost.

“Water is the exile, carried back in cans and flasks, the ghost between your hands and your mouth.” Water is like the love happened during war time. Stories that happened, lost in the immerse universe, like river that dried up. But those that are lost, have footprint on earth, like history that one day will be read, or it will be planted in someone’s memory.

Water gives one comfort.

“She likes to lay her face against the upper reaches of his arm, that dark brown river, and to wake submerged within it.”

“To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgment. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self.”

Water triggers our memory of pleasure.

“Hana peeled fresh plum and put the flesh into the mouth of the patient who loved it a lot….heavily watered plum garden…she is a woman who misses moisture, who has always loved low green hedges and ferns. While for him this much greenery feels like a carnival.”

Water implies sex, our primitive power.

“The pure beauty of an innocent dancing boy, like sound from a boy chorister, which he remembered as the purest of sounds, the clearest river water, the most transparent depth of the sea. Here in the desert, which had been an old sea where nothing was strapped down or permanent, everything drift of linen across the boy as if he were embracing or freeing himself from an ocean or his own blue afterbirth. A boy arousing himself, his genitals against the colour of fire…one of the men crawls forward and collects the semen which has fallen on the sand…In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.” Here, it suggested we human are from ocean, though we now live in the land, we still bear the mark of ocean. Our body consist of water, the semen is liquid, water is in our body, is our root, it is the fundamental force of sex, it is our life source.

Water has lots of meanings. One has to read and reread to understand it. But to summarized, in this novel, it implies demarcation, change, a connection, a feeling, sex and baptism.

6, Summary

Water is the key word in this novel. We can see the similar pattern in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us for those violent mutilation (Prose, Francine 2006).

After sorting out heaps of implied meaning of water, understanding the nature of water and desert, we have to ask why? Where it will lead us to?

My idea is-

1, It helps us to understand the identity of individual. Nowadays, people are more divided, more separated than in the past. But we have the same ancestors from ocean, we are made of water, we have the same desire just as desert people chasing source of water. So we are all “Water people”, not English patient, Italian thief, Canadian nurse or Indian Sapper. One has to always remind oneself of the similarity of others instead of difference. You may call desert as desert, but from a point of universal history, desert is ocean, desert is water, there is nothing different.

2, It prepares us for the death of English Patient. He died not with shame or regret, he died with memory of his lover and gladness of once live and love. He don’t believe god for his whole life, but now he has something, not sure if it can be called faith, but it related to love of others. He may now accept “death is a gift from heaven”. And his death means the rebirth of Hana and Kip, the young generation. These young people were once shocked by war, unable to go back to post-war life, were so sad and disappoint of everything. But they have future, they can love and they will live on. Whatever lost, will rebirth in their life. Water means life, it brings life to plants, animals and us. Water will wash our dirty body and sinned soul, snow will clean up the mess we done on land, flood might take our lives but it gives us chance  of new start. It prepares us for the end of story, it give us hope to believe.

To end my analysis with the famous quote from the book:
“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. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps. “
It explains everything, right?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s