“[U]nder the scarred trees in the half-bombed gardens of the Villa San Girolamo…” Who wouldn’t want to be there?
The place is Tuscany, in a hill town north of Florence…the second European war is drawing to a close. A pilot, burned beyond recognition, lies in an upstairs bedroom in an abandoned villa, tended only by a young woman, a French-Canadian nurse named Hana. She is shell-shocked, reverberating from her experiences caring for the wounded and the dead. And he is more ghost than human…his face is unrecognizable, he has forgotten his name. He is simply, to all intents and purposes, the English patient.
While he lies in bed, bandaged, unmoving, Hana reads to him from the books she finds in the villa’s library – Kim, The Charterhouse of Parma, the Annals of Tacitus…a modern-day Scheherazade telling stories to the Persian king. Although it is not her own death she’s attempting to defer but his.
Yes, yes, you say, I know all this. I saw the movie. A love story, right? Well, yes and no. If I had to summarize The English Patient in a word or two, I might call it an extended love poem. “I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, he says, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife.” This, to me, is poetry.
So there is love. But the love story is multifarious and fragmented. The man in the upstairs bedroom is not English at all but Hungarian: he is Lászlo de Almásy, a Hungarian Count and desert explorer, and he did exist, although his character here is fictional. And his love affair with a young married woman – a liaison that ended tragically in a cave in the Libyan desert – follows the most conventional arc, which is why they made it into a movie.
Hana and Almásy are joined by two others – a young Sikh sapper whose job it is to trek across the war-ravaged country defusing the thousands of land mines planted by the retreating German army, and an Italian-Canadian working as an operative for the Intelligence Corps. The sapper is Kirpal Singh, whose nickname is Kip; the operative is David Caravaggio, who shares his name and temperament with a 16th Century painter who had a reputation for being violent, touchy, and provocative. This, I think, is not a coincidence.
Caravaggio, whose thumbs were severed by the Italians in Florence, was a friend of Hana’s father, and knew her as a child. He loved her then, like a father. Or an uncle. Now, seeing her as a young woman, he begins to love her in a different way, but is mindful enough of his own psychological and physical scars to keep this to himself. Instead he focuses on getting the patient, with whom he shares an addiction to morphine, to tell his story. Because he knows, or thinks he knows, who the English patient really is.
Hana and the Sikh fall in love, and conduct their silent affair in a tent overlooking the villa. But Hana is also somewhat in love with Almásy, whom she sees as a kind of saint. She says as much to Caravaggio, who is trying to make her see she’s tied herself to a dead man – or one who soon will be:
“Why do you love him so much?”
“I love him.”
“You don’t love him, you adore him.”
“Go away, Carvaggio. Please.”
“You’ve tied yourself to a corpse for some reason.”
“He is a saint. I think. A despairing saint. Are there such things? Our desire is to protect them.”
This is a book peopled by saints, from the biblical figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in the church at Arezzo. And like the painted martyrs depicted by those medieval artists, Ondaatje’s saints are all too human. The English patient is a spy; Caraveggio is a former thief; Hana is haunted by images of the child she chose to abort. We are all divided creatures – we are saint or sinner depending on time, circumstance, and opportunity.
The climax of the narrative occurs in August of 1945: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kip, who sees himself as representative of all of Asia, is devastated. He trusted the West, spent the last few years risking his life for the Allied cause, believed the Europeans to be better than they were. All that trust – all that loyalty and respect and yes, love, for his superiors – betrayed not once, but twice. Seeing the West clearly for the first time – the sheer naked colonialism disguised by good manners and a properly knotted tie – he can no longer be part of this group. He will no longer be their sentinel.
His head filled with images of death and destruction, Kip sets off on his motorbike, leaving behind Almásy, Hana, Caravaggio, and the “meadows of civilization he had tended”. He travels south, riding deeper into the thick rain, retracing the route he had taken to the Villa San Girolamo, and the words of the prophet Isaiah, spoken to him by the burned man – the sinner-saint he had once loved – come back to haunt him:
“Behold, the Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee. He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country”.