Can a penis sleep like a sea horse? The question arrests us on the first page of The English Patient:
Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet ...
She 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. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.
Though it is possible to think of a penis as asleep and as having in sleep the shape of a sea horse, a penis is not well said to sleep like a sea horse, for sea horses are beady-eyed little creatures, characteristically alert and erect. Michael Ondaatje’s prose is inventively figurative, but his figures do not always quite add up. A man sets off across the desert on foot, seventy miles to the next oasis: ‘water in a skin bag he had filled from the ain hung from his shoulder and sloshed like a placenta.’ As sea horses do not typically sleep, so a placenta does not slosh, at any rate not when it is functional in the womb, as here, by analogy, it is imagined to be. For figurative language to succeed it must work at the level of ordinary meaning as well as at the level of allusion. Ondaatje’s images fail sometimes to achieve this balanced ambiguity. His imagery has about it something of the 17th-century Metaphysical conceit (‘There was that small indentation at her throat we called the Bosphorus. I would dive from her shoulder into the Bosphorus. Rest my eye there’) and it lays itself open to Johnson’s criticism of that kind of poetry: its wit though ‘new’ is not ‘natural’ and it is prone to produce ‘combinations of confused magnificence’. Some of Ondaatje’s combinations are more confused than magnificent. There is a cloudy quality to the sea horse and placenta images, but we can still see where we are going. At other moments in The English Patient a fog descends: ‘Cold nights in the desert. He plucked a thread from the horde of nights and put it into his mouth like food.’
One man’s overwriting is another man’s poetry, but in my view Ondaatje allows himself too much latitude in the direction of high-sounding prose. In its poetic vein his writing tends to self-parody, to be portentous, and to create an air of solemnity which tempts irreverence. Ondaatje spent eight years writing The English Patient, a fact which his publisher reports as though it somehow guaranteed the novel’s quality, making Ondaatje into a kind of modern Flaubert. But it may be that Ondaatje has spent too long considering what he has written, listened to himself so often that he has occasionally lost a sense of what he is sounding like. Would Flaubert, at any rate, have written the phrase ‘turn eternal in a prayer’ or ‘there was a thread, a breath of death in her’ ? For want of a sensitive editor, Ondaatje might do well to take up Voltaire’s practice of reading everything that he writes out loud to his cook, or his cat.
Ondaatje’s high stylistic and – as we shall see – moral seriousness asks to be taken down a peg or two. This done, The English Patient remains pegged near the top of the board. It is an exceptional book, and perhaps it could only have acquired its special character through the self involvement of its author. The good here is part and parcel of the bad. A humbler spirit would have taken fewer risks and achieved less. Consider that sea horse. Only a writer who took himself very seriously would dare such an image. A man has been charred black by burns sustained when his plane went down in the desert. To the nurse who attends him, his penis (which we shall later discover has been the cause of his downfall) takes the form of a creature from the deep, cool ocean. By deft synecdoche the man himself becomes the sea horse, hippocampus hippocampus, that small exotic fish with the ‘thin tight hips’. At the same time, he is transformed into a surreal composite of sea animals, a painting by Arcimboldi such as we could imagine hanging in the Italian Renaissance villa where, cradled by its painted elegance, the burnt man lies dying.
Ondaatje’s impulse to think figuratively is not just expressed in particular images. Figurative thinking generates this novel at every level, and if in some instances Ondaatje’s figures of speech fail quite to cohere, his figures of fiction – his characters, stories and settings – work naturally, making literal as well as figurative sense. This unforced interplay, on the large scale, between primary and secondary meanings is the book’s chief pleasure. Any passing irritation one may feel at the surface mannerisms of The English Patient is overtaken by admiration for its imaginative scope and its success as a fictional unity.
The proportions of the novel are pleasingly balanced. There’s a lot going on in it, but we never lose a sense of its structure. Looking back on it, we can take it in at a glance, like a Classical building. This is more than an analogy, because the unity of the book is secured by an architectural setting: the Villa San Girolamo, twenty miles north of Florence. Here the foreground action of the novel takes place.
It is spring 1945, in Italy, ‘the war moving North, the war almost over’. Behind the lines of the Allied advance a villa stands, half boarded-up, half-destroyed. It has been a nunnery, a German stronghold (focus of a fierce battle) and an Allied field hospital. The armies have moved on. The patients and nurses that remained have now departed for safety in the South. Two stay on: a Canadian nurse – Hana – and a dying man, disfigured by terrible burns, the man they call ‘the English patient’.
Hana tends the English patient with supererogatory devotion, washing him, dressing his burns, giving him shots of morphine, listening to his stories, reading to him from the English books she finds in the villa library. It is as though in soothing him Hana finds balm for her own interior wounds, for the skin of a soul which has been seared by exposure to death: the death of her father, the death of her child, the death of the father of her child, the death of countless fathers of countless children. By day, Hana looks after her patient or works in the garden, growing the vegetables which are their food. At night, heedless of the danger of unexploded mines, she wanders through the ruined rooms of the villa like a nomad, looking for somewhere to sleep: ‘Some nights she opened doors and slept in rooms that had walls missing. She lay on the pallet on the very edge of the room, facing the drifting landscape of stars, moving clouds, wakened by the growl of thunder and lightning.’
Into this ghostly idyll come two men: first, David Caravaggio, a friend of Hana’s father from before the war in Toronto; and later, a young sapper, Kirpal Singh, nicknamed Kip – a Sikh from the Punjab, who has been detailed to clear the area around the villa of mines. Caravaggio and Kip materialise like figures in a dream. Both are masters of stealth and delicacy: Caravaggio as a professional robber, and Kip as a dismantler of bombs. But Caravaggio can no longer steal: his hands have been maimed and his spirit broken. At the outbreak of war he was enlisted as a spy (‘they had just made my skills official’). In Italy he gets caught and they cut his thumbs off.
Of the four main characters of The English Patient we learn least about Hana – that is to say, least about her past. The structure of the novel does not require that we should be told much. The world of the villa belongs to her more than to the men. She is its tutelary spirit, the presiding genius of a temple of stories to which the men bring their offerings: Caravaggio’s nightmare vision of an incident in wartime spying and torture; the gripping accounts of Kip’s dance of death with unexploded bombs in London and Naples; the English patient’s tales of adventure, intrigue and romance in the North African desert.
In the archaeology of Ondaatje’s novel the English patient’s story is surely the oldest narrative material, the core around which the rest of the book accumulates. Given the imaginative structure of the novel, it is impossible to think of its creative genesis differently. The English patient’s story lies at the centre of the book as the English patient lies at the centre of the Villa San Girolamo, like an embalmed figure in a mausoleum, Hana his votary, Caravaggio and Kip attendant knights. In this sculptured immobility, suspended between life and death, the English patient has passed beyond the condition of character – without a skin he has no attributes, he has become all story. Incapable of action and without a future, he is just a voice in a box, a door into past worlds.
At the opening of the novel the burnt man has no identity. Everything about him appears to be English – the way he speaks, his memories of English life, his dilettante polymathy. But as he talks and the fragments of his story form into a pattern, a new interpretation emerges. Caravaggio, who has worked for British Intelligence in North Africa, recognises that the English patient is not English at all but a Hungarian, the map-maker and explorer, Count Ladislaus de Almasy, a shadowy figure who helped the Germans in the first years of the war, guiding their spies across the desert into Cairo. Hana and Kip are sceptical of Caravaggio’s theory and continue to think of the burnt man as English, but the novel makes it clear that Caravaggio is right.
Almasy’s story begins in 1930 on the Gilf Kebir Plateau in the remote desert on the Egyptian-Libyan border. He is one of a group of explorers mapping the Gilf Kebir in search of the lost oasis of Zerzura. In 1936, Almasy starts a passionate affair with Katharine, the young wife of an English colleague, Geoffrey Clifton. Long after the affair has ended, in the last days before the war, Almasy returns to the Gilf Kebir ‘to clear out the base camp’. Clifton is meant to fly in and pick him up. Instead he flies his plane at Almasy in an attempt to kill him. The plane crashes, killing Clifton and injuring Katharine. Almasy takes Katharine to a desert cave and sets out on foot to find help at the next oasis, El Taj. But in El Taj no one be lieves his story, and the British arrest him as a spy. It takes Almasy three years to get back to the cave. Disinterring an old plane from the sand, he flies out of the Gilf Kebir for the last time, with Katharine’s body at his side. The plane catches fire. Katharine catches fire. Almasy catches fire. He parachutes into the desert, where the Bedouin deliver him to the British. He has become the English patient.
Almasy and his story are based on fact. Using source material from the Royal Geographical Society in London, Ondaatje has imagined himself deep into the world of desert exploration in the Twenties and Thirties. Almasy’s story is a gripping adventure story which is also imaginatively strange and shimmering with figurative meaning. And the same is true of Kip’s story. Here, once again, Ondaatje has worked his way deep into his material, becoming an expert on bomb disposal so as to be able to bring it alive as a the stuff of adventure, and to activate it as a source of allegorical and symbolic meaning. But Ondaatje’s greatest insight was to see how Almasy’s story could be woven in and out of Kip’s, how a story of survival in the North African desert could be set off against a story of survival in European bomb craters.
Beneath the intricate particular detail of The English Patient there lies the simple enough general insight that reality is a treacherous web of appearances – a minefield, a desert. The world is dangerous, a place of mirages and mirrors and trompe-l’oeil effects, a place where we are easily disorientated and innocent-seeming things prove deadly: where to move at the wrong time is to go 90 degrees off-course, where a piano or grandfather clock may blow off fragile limbs. To survive in this unsafe place, to remain intact, we must be canny as spies, artful as thieves. Almasy and Kip (Caravaggio too) are masters in this mortal game: Almasy through knowledge (‘I have always had information like a sea in me’) and an art of anonymity, Kip through self-containment, watchfulness, precise attention, an intuitive grace by which what he is and what he does move in perfect congruence.
The average life-span of a wartime sapper was ten days. Kip survives for years. Almasy’s trips across the desert are legendary feats. But neither Almasy nor Kip can outwit Englishness, which in The English Patient is the ultimate symbol of life’s treacherousness. By his adultery with Katherine, Almasy joins life in its game of appearances and deception. This in itself is risky, but his greater mistake is to have an affair with the wife of a member of the British Establishment, a force for dissimulation for which he is no match. Kip is cheated by Englishness in a very different way. He is taken in by its values, its false romance. While his brother sees the British for what they are and prefers to sit out the war in a Punjabi jail, Kip obeys the call of Empire and risks his life to defend Englishness. He is woken from this trance by the news of Hiroshima.
As a mechanism for ending the novel, Kip’s peripeteia, his moment of truth, is extremely effective. It brings everything back to reality. Ondaatje’s success in conjuring up the world of the Villa San Girolamo leaves him with a problem. His characters are caught there in a dream at the end of time, like the figures in a painting by Giorgione. Hiroshima shatters this dream, starts the clock ticking and allows the novel to end. But the sudden intrusion of polemic into this precisely constructed book seems false and hysterical. When Kip screams, ‘American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman,’ it is not his voice which we hear but Ondaatje’s, the voice of a Sri Lankan-born author living in Canada, possessed of a just outrage against the history of the British Empire.
The English Patient is a very male book, a book about different ways of being a man, different ways of being Ondaatje. Looked at this way, it becomes understandable that the bluff, earthy, blunt-spoken Caravaggio should be the character that Ondaatje has most difficulty filling out: for I guess that this is how Ondaatje sees himself. Meanwhile, the mercurial Kip can be seen as the man Ondaatje would have liked to have been, and he is created with all the love and detail with which a man creates his ideal self. As for Almasy, the man of no or any identity, the brilliant foreigner who sponges up English values and English literariness, I see him as the writer in Ondaatje, his creative intelligence. So Ondaatje’s deep ambivalence about Almasy is scarcely surprising. For Ondaatje’s voice is Almasy’s, Almasy’s style Ondaatje’s, a style which at best generates things of real beauty, at worst creates effects of trompe-l’oeil which make us suspect that there is less to what we read than meets the eye.