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Novel by Michael Ondaatje in the magic realist tradition. Tells the story of a mysterious, possibly-English, badly-burned patient, and those whose lives he crosses or has crossed. The story is set in Cairo and North Africa in the 1930s and the second world war, and later in Italy during the allied push north. (What terribly bad syntax.) Also the title of a film adaptation of the book by Anthony Minghella starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Excellent movie based on the above mentioned novel by Michael Ondaatje who did astoundingly well at the Oscars, winning 9 of the shiny statues.The movie manages to mix an excellent plot, with a beautiful photography, some incredible acting (Juliette Binoche was on her habitual levels of excellence -still don't know why she went to the Oscars as a supporting actress, and Ralph Fiennes was just perfect as a melancholic adventurer) and a rather slick sense of humour (nearly everything in the movie is a joke, is set by fate or a stupid mistake).

It was directed by Anthony Minghella, who would later adapt Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mister Ripley; and the cast is completed with Kristin Scott Thomas, and the always disturbing Willem Dafoe.

The English Patient is a novel about: a young nurse named Hana, a Sikh bomb-disposal expert named Kip, a thief turned spy named Caravaggio, and a burnt black english man who no one knows the identity of all living together at the end of the Second World War. Michael Ondaatje is brilliant in expressing the history and lives of the people who were in the war.

My favorite quote from the novel:
"For echo is the soul of the voice exciting itself in hollow places"

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a novel chock full of symbolism. Ondaatje uses metaphors and symbols masterfully throughout the novel. Fire, the deserts, books, and the Italian monastery are all signicant symbols in the story. The characters are effected by these symbols both positively and negatively. There are many hidden symbols and representations that are visible in both the novel and the movie versions of the story.

Fire is a symbol used frequently during the story, and perhaps the most significant. It represents both devastation and retribution to almost every character. Count Almasy, the English patient, was burned horribly beyond recognition by fire from his plane crash. He is left helpless and scalded, a once noble, strong man. However, the being burned by fire allows him to suppress his memories and identity. He fakes amnesia to put behind his twisted past. The woman Katharine, who Almasy is having an affair with is also killed in the plane fire. The English patient’s burns also cleanse him of national identity. His hatred for nationalities and social classes are shown in his popular quote “Erase the family name! Erase nations!”, which rings true for him, as the fire has burned off his face, rendering him without nationality. None can identify where Almasy comes from. After the word of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, Japan reaches the Sikh sapper Kip, his relationship with the Canadian nurse Hana ceases; and he loses trust and love for all English “dealmakers”. When Kip “sees the streets of Asia full of fire”, he isolates himself from the English, and his darker side is displayed. The nazis tortured David Carvaggio after his capture with fire; they cut off his thumbs and burned his palms so he could never steal again.

Another symbol used throughout the English Patient is the book. Books are an escape and a method of communication. When Hana first enters the Italian Monastery where she tends to the English patient, she can’t get upstairs because there are steps missing. She nails piles of books down in place of the steps to access the second floor. She can now access the bedroom in which she cares for the English patient. Hana frequently immerses herself in books, escaping the daunting task of tending to Almasy and her problems. The one possession on the English patient when he was recovered from the plane wreck was his copy of Herodotus. This book is referred to several time throughout the book, and contains maps and photographs of places he had been to in the desert prior to his plane crash. These articles teach Hana more about Almasy, and helps her understand his past.

Another symbol used regularly in the novel is the map. Count Almasy hated boundaries and nations, but ironically enough, he was a cartographer. Maps display artificial boundaries and are often the cause of war; two countries debating over what land belongs to which country. The English patient is fond of the desert because it cannot be mapped. The landscape is evershifting, and everything looks similar. Almasy’s hate for nations, titles, and surnames makes “mapping the desert” the perfect job him.

The Italian monastery, the bombed out church in which the English patient rests and much of the novel takes place, is a location filled with symbolism. It is a place of healing. Every character present at the monastery has been somehow damaged by the war. Hana’s husband was killed, and her friend blown up. Carvaggio’s thumbs were severed by Nazis. Almasy’s plane was shot down by Iraqis. Kip’s life is in constant danger disarming mines around the area. The monastery serves as a garden of Eden to the inhabitants. It is their refuge from the war, and their escape from society.

Another setting of great symbolic significance is the desert. The desert parallels with the English patient’s identity. It is changing with the wind, unmappable and vast. Almasy develops his hate for nations in the desert. It becomes his favourite place, as it is inhabited by few, and is “nationless”. Wars are seldom fought over deserts, because the desert has no boundaries. While most see the desert as a barren, horrible place where none would want to be, the English patient sees it as a borderless haven, where people can truly be free.

Even the painkilling drug morphine can be viewed as a symbol by the reader. Morphine in the book represents ease of pain, truthfulness, and high spirits. As the English patient takes more doses of morphine for his burns, he reveals more about his identity, and is typically in a more pleasant mood. The same applies for Carvaggio, who is stealing morphine from the English patient, to soothe the pain of his tortured hands. He becomes much more open about his feelings and expression to Hana and Almasy when he has taken morphine.

The symbolism of The English Patient is abundant throughout the novel. Fire represents destruction, and at the same time, cleansing. The desert is a terrible harsh environment, and yet a peaceful haven. The monastery is a sanctuary and a place of spiritual and physical healing for all who reside in it. Michael Ondaatje uses symbols constantly in the book to bring more depth and personality to the characters.

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