The English Patient is a 1992 novel by Sri Lankan Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje. The story deals with the gradually revealed histories of a critically burned man, his Canadian nurse, a Canadian thief, and an Indian sapper in the British Army as they live out the end of World War II in an Italian villa. The novel won the Canadian Governor General's Award and the Booker Prize for fiction. The novel has been translated into more than 300 languages and was adapted into an award-winning film of the same name in 1996.
The historical backdrop for this novel is the Second World War in Northern Africa and Italy. It begins in Egypt's capital, Cairo, just before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. A team of eccentric British archeologists are searching desert sites for important relics.
The English Patient is in part a sequel to Ondaatje's earlier work In the Skin of a Lion (1987); the characters of Hana and Caravaggio reappear from the earlier novel. We also learn the fate of Patrick Lewis, Hana's father and the main character of that work, and what influence he's had on Hana's character. One of the main characters in the new novel, the burned man, is Count László de Almásy, a famous Hungarian researcher of the Sahara Desert, disciple of Herodotus, and discoverer of the Ain Doua prehistoric rock painting sites in the western Jebel Uweinat mountain.
Hana, a young Canadian Army nurse, lives in the abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy, which is filled with hidden, undetonated bombs. In her care is the man nicknamed "the English patient," of whom all she knows is that he was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash before being taken to the hospital by a Bedouin tribe. He also claimed to be English. The only possession that the patient has is a copy of Herodotus' histories that survived the fire. He has annotated these histories and is constantly remembering his explorations in the desert in great detail, but cannot state his own name. The patient is, in fact, László de Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer who was part of a British archaeological group. He, however, chose to erase his identity and nationality.
Caravaggio, a Canadian who served in Britain's foreign intelligence service since the late 1930s, was a friend of Hana's father, who died in the war, having been a pilot whose plane was shot down. Caravaggio, who entered the world of spying because of his skill as a thief, comes to the villa in search of Hana. He overheard in another hospital that she was there taking care of a burned patient. Caravaggio bears physical and psychological scars; he was deliberately left behind to spy on the German forces and was eventually caught, interrogated and tortured, his thumbs having been cut off. Seeking vengeance three years later, Caravaggio (like Almásy) is addicted to morphine, which Hana supplies.
One day, while Hana is playing the piano, two British soldiers enter the villa. One of the soldiers is Kip, an Indian Sikh who has been trained as a sapper or combat engineer, specializing in bomb and ordnance disposal. Kip explains that the Germans often booby-trapped musical instruments with bombs, and that he will stay in the villa to rid it of its dangers. Kip and the English Patient immediately become friends.
Prompted to tell his story, the Patient begins to reveal all: An English gentleman, Geoffrey Clifton and his wife, Katherine, accompanied the patient's desert exploration team. The Patient's job was to draw maps of the desert and The Clifton's plane made this job easier. Almásy fell in love with Katherine Clifton one night as she read from Herodotus' histories aloud around a campfire. They soon began a very intense affair, but in 1938, Katharine cut it off, claiming that Geoffrey would go mad if he discovered them. Geoffrey, however, did discover the affair when he tricked her into thinking he was out of town for the day (wanting to surprise her for their first wedding anniversary) and saw Katherine getting into a car on her way to Almásy.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the members of the exploration team decided to pack up base camp and Geoffrey Clifton offered to pick up Almásy in his plane. However, Geoffrey Clifton arrived with Katharine and tried to kill all three of them by crashing the plane, leaving Almásy in the desert to die. Geoffrey Clifton died immediately; Katharine survived, but was horribly injured. Almásy took her to "the cave of swimmers," a place the exploration team had previously discovered, and covered her with a parachute so he could leave to find help. After four days, he reached a town, but the British were suspicious of him because he was incoherent and had a foreign surname. They locked him up as a spy.
When Almásy finally got away, he knew it was too late to save Katharine, so he allowed himself to be captured by the Germans, helping their spies cross the desert into Cairo in exchange for gas and a car to get back to Katherine. After leaving Cairo, his car broke down in the desert. He went to the cave of swimmers to find Katharine, and retrieved her body and took it to the crashed plane, which had been buried under the sand. He tried to fly back to civilization, but the plane malfunctioned during flight. Almásy parachuted down covered in flames which was where the Bedouins found him.
Caravaggio, who had had suspicions that the Patient was not English, fills in details. Geoffrey Clifton was, in fact, an English spy and had intelligence about Almásy's affair with Katharine. He also had intelligence that Almásy was already working with the Germans.
Over time while Almásy divulges the details of his past, Kip becomes close to Hana. Kip's brother had always distrusted the West, but Kip entered the British Army willingly. He was trained as a sapper by Lord Suffolk, an English gentleman, who welcomed Kip into his family. Under Lord Suffolk's training, Kip became very skilled at his job. When Lord Suffolk and his team were killed by a bomb, Kip became separated from the world and emotionally removed from everyone. He decided to leave England and began defusing bombs in Italy. Kip's best friend, a British Army sergeant is killed in a bomb explosion.
Kip forms a romantic relationship with Hana and uses it to reconnect to humanity. He becomes a part of a community again and begins to feel comfortable as a lover. Then he hears news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. He becomes enraged. He feels deceived and betrayed by the western world that he had tried to assimilate to. He threatens to kill the English Patient, but instead decides to leave the Villa.
For some time after their separation, Hana wrote Kip letters, but he never responded. She eventually stopped. Years later Kip is happily married with children and is a successful doctor; however, he still often thinks of Hana.
Characters in The English Patient
Almásy is the title character. He arrives under Hana's care burned beyond recognition. He has a face, but it is unrecognizable and his tags are not present. The only identification they have of him is that he told the Bedouins that he was English. Thus, they call him just the English Patient. Lacking any identification, Almásy serves a sort of blank canvas onto which the other characters project their wishes. Hana finds in him redemption for not being at her father's side when he died in a similar fashion without anyone to comfort him. Kip finds a friend. The irony in the tale arises in that Almásy is not, in fact, English. Rather, he is Hungarian by birth and has tried to erase all ties to countries throughout his desert explorations.
Because of his complete rejection of nationalism, many of Almásy's actions which would otherwise seem reprehensible are somewhat forgiven. To a man with no nation, it is not wrong to help a German spy across the desert. The German is simply another man. Almásy is portrayed in a sympathetic light. This is partly because Almásy tells his own story, but it is also because Almásy always adheres to his own moral code.
Almásy is also at the center of one of the novel's love stories. He is involved in an adulterous relationship with Katharine Clifton, which eventually leads to her death and the death of her husband, Geoffrey Clifton. Katharine is the figure who leads Almásy to sensuality. He falls in love with her voice as she reads Herodotus. Sensuality--in both the sexual and observational senses-- is a major theme to the novel.
Hana is a twenty-year-old Canadian Army nurse. Hana is torn between her youth and her maturity. In a sense, she has lost her childhood too early. A good nurse, she learned quickly that she could not become emotionally attached to her patients. She calls them all "buddy", but immediately detaches from them once they are dead. Her lover, a Canadian officer, is killed. Hana comes to believe she is a curse whose friends inevitably die. Symbolic of her detachment and loss of childhood, she cuts off all of her hair and no longer looks in mirrors after three days of working as a nurse.
In contrast to this detachment, upon hearing of her father's death Hana has an emotional breakdown. She then puts all of her energy into caring for the English Patient. She washes his wounds and provides him with morphine. When the hospital is abandoned, Hana refuses to leave and instead stays with her patient. She sees Almásy as saintlike and with the "hipbones of Christ". She falls in love with the English Patient in a purely non-sexual way.
The character of Hana is entirely paradoxical. She is mature beyond her years, but she still clings to childlike practices. She plays hopscotch in the Villa and sees the patient as a noble hero who is suffering. She projects her own romanticized images onto the blank slate of the patient, forming a sort of fairytale existence for herself.
Kip is an Indian Sikh. Kip was trained to be a sapper by Lord Suffolk who also, essentially, made him a part of his family. Kip is, perhaps, the most conflicted character of the novel. His brother is an Indian nationalist and strongly anti-Western. By contrast, Kip willingly joined the British military, but he was met with reservations from his white colleagues. This causes Kip to become somewhat emotionally withdrawn.
His emotional withdrawal becomes more pronounced with the death of his mentor and friend Lord Suffolk. Suffolk and his team were killed while they were attempting to dismantle a new of bomb, which detonated. After this event, Kip decides to leave England and work as a sapper in Italy where he meets Hana. He and his partner hear her playing piano, and, as musical instruments were often wired, entered the villa to stop her. Kip's partner leaves the villa and dies so Kip stays on, setting up camp in the courtyard.
Kip and Hana become lovers and, through that, Kip begins to regain confidence and a sense of community. He feels welcomed by these westerners, and they all seem to form a group that disregards national origins. They get together and celebrate Hana's twenty-first birthday, a symbol of their friendship and Kip's acceptance; however, shortly after, Kip hears news of America's dropping of the atom bomb on Japan. He realizes that the West can never reconcile with the East, and that America would never have done something so horrific to a Caucasian population. So he leaves and never returns, though later in his life he often thinks of Hana.
Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and long-time friend of Hana's father. His profession is legitimized by the war, as the allies needed people to steal important documents for them. Caravaggio arrives in the villa as "the man with bandaged hands". His German captors cut off his thumbs. He, physically and mentally, can no longer steal, having "lost his nerve".
Hana remembers Caravaggio as a very human thief. He would always get distracted by the human element in a job. For instance, if an advent calendar was on the wrong day, he would fix it. She also has deep feelings of love for Caravaggio. It is debated if this love is romantic or simply familial, however Caravaggio does display a romantic love towards Hana in parts of the book.
Caravaggio is also addicted to morphine, as is Almásy. He uses this to get information out of Almásy.
Katherine is the wife of Geoffrey Clifton. She has an affair with Almásy which her husband finds out about. She is Oxford educated. Almásy falls in love with her as she reads from Almásy's borrowed copy of The Histories around a campfire.
Katharine and Clifton met at Oxford. During the context of events told by The English Patient, she had been married to Geoffrey for only a year. A few weeks after they get married, she and Geoffrey fly to the desert to join Almásy's expedition crew. Once the affair begins, she is torn by guilt and eventually breaks off the affair. After Geoffrey kills himself, and they are stuck in the desert, she admits she always loved Almásy.
An explorer and Katharine Clifton's husband. He joins Almásy's exploration group because he is rich and owns a plane. He is kind hearted, Oxford educated, and has a beautiful young wife. He seems to have everything going for him, but Katharine says that he has the capacity to be insanely jealous.
Although he claims to have journeyed to North Africa for exploration's sake, we find out that he was, in fact, working for British intelligence.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
In 1996, it was made into a film of the same title by Anthony Minghella, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Colin Firth and Naveen Andrews.