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The English Patient

1. Themes and issues: critique of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism; explores notions of identity; love and desire; investigates the natures of story telling and intertextuality; on a metaphorical level it shows the demise of imperialist discourses and the rise of the oppressed and dispossessed indigenous populations.


3. Setting

4. Symbolism: fire, water, religious, desert and villa, books, paintings (Isaiah 77-78, 294), David and Goliath (116-117)

5. Intertextuality

6. Image of palimpsest

7. Imperialism; imperialist discourses Imperialism colonises a land by imposing practices, ways of thinking and seeing, and conceptual paradigms . It is an act of expropriation.

Relationship between themes of imperialism and nationalism with - painting of David and Goliath, image of palimpsest, symbolism of desert, image of ruins, Books (Kim, Last of Mohicans)


Discourse: is a way of speaking and writing about things. The stories, the narratives that exist in society (in literature, advertising, anecdotes, morality, religion, science, etc) that tells us what is normal and acceptable. Specific attitudes are embedded and naturalised in these narratives. Discourses also allow certain things to be said and thought, in the very language they use.

Imperialist discourse - talks of progress, civilisation and savagery, democracy, science and religion, bringing enlightenment to the dark backward customs of indigenous people. It positions white European, Christians as superior and knowledgeable and marginalises and oppresses those constructed as the 'Other' as the binary opposite.

In the past it has manifested itself in war and colonialism, where non-European cultures imposed their beliefs over (mapped) others.

At present America has imperialistic policies (cultural and economic) that they impose on other cultures, yet they are not labeled as oppressors and tyrants or constructed in the media in this way. Instead they are the champions of democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise and demonise others who are usually Arabs, Muslims, and communists. (this is the power of ideology and discourse)

All have done nasty things but more people have died in the name of democracy and christianity than other political creeds. Of course we never hear much about these.

The novel is a story about stories and the act of creating narratives. It is a story of love and desire; four damaged people in a villa who need healing; it is concerned with war and loss; the tyranny of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism; personal and national identity. On a metaphorical level it shows the demise of imperialist discourses and the rise of the oppressed and dispossessed indigenous populations.

1. Themes

imperialism, colonialism and nationalism (138- 139, 283-287, 290 )

- maps, borders, Kipling's Kim, war, bombing of Japan, cultural imperialism and oppression , image of palimpsest, metaphor of desert and garden, references to David and Goliath and Caravaggio's painting

Ondaatje's critique of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism is shown through four characters in a villa who have been damaged by war. The English patient and Caravaggio are physically injured, Hana is psychologically wounded by what she had seen in war as well as being shell-shocked, while Kip is damaged by the trauma of being a sapper, but later through the realisation that he had inadvertently supported a civilisation that had exploited and oppressed his own people and had been responsible for dropping a terrible weapon on a fellow-Asian country.

The very idea of nationalism with its jingoistic rhetoric of saving the world for civilisation is shown to be responsible for creating borders and divisions between people. It is the cause of most wars as it pits nation against nation when really the differences have been constructed for other reasons, often economic and in the interests of those in power.

In the novel there are many references to maps and borders. 'All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.' 261

The English patient after years in the desert came to see the absurdity of nationalism and war. In the desert these artificial borders were lost: 'We were German, English, Hungarian, African - all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations.' (138) The novel uses the desert as a metaphor. The desert defies national identity, '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' (p.138) It disappears and reappears as a changed landscape and can only be defined by its indefinability. The desert refuses to be mapped, an activity that attempts to impose artificial borders and fabricated identities. The English patient suggests it is therefore a place of freedom where artificial boundaries are shown as destructive: 'All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith ... Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.' (139)

Ondaatje's critique of nationalism is shown by the terrible consequences of war and by using the desert as a metaphor to highlight that all notions of difference, the lines we draw on maps, the places we name are all artificial and are in essence destructive.


'I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow convertedd the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew that if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I'd be banished.' 283

Kip is distraught by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He sees the 'streets of Asia full of fire.' and significantly he sees this in the image of the map (the coloniser's way of subjugating a nation), 'It rolls across cities like a burst map.' This was the culture that had proclaimed itself civilised and now sees the terrible hypocrisy, and sees it in the irony of 'This tremor of western wisdom' (284)

Kip had never believed in his brother's outward rebellion against his colonisers, and it is only after the bomb that he sees that his brother is right: 'My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers.' 284

Individual books also are used symbolically in The English Patient to draw parallels between the two cultures. Kim sets up another level of meaning in relation to colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism that foreshadow Kip's realisation at the close of the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is another text written by a white man showing the dispossession and genocide of an Indian race. In both cases they show the European's disregard and disdain for cultures other than their own; a sentiment forgrounded in the novel when the two cities of Japan are destroyed and Kip and Caravaggio agree that this would not have happened if they were a white race.

3.Setting: The Villa & the Desert

The English Patient is set in villa outside Florence, where four characters from different cultural backgrounds attempt to come to terms with the terrible things they had experienced in war. It is through the badly burnt English patient that the narrative shifts to his experiences in the desert of North Africa in the previous decade. The settings of the villa and the desert are not simply physical backdrops or geographical locations for a plot to emerge, but are imbued with many other symbolic meanings.

The villa is a refuge from the outside world and war. It is a peaceful place, almost a paradise from the last acts of war and destruction in the outside world: 'It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war. Completely unsafe.' (29) Yet while it has these elements of paradise - the quiet solitude, gardens painted on the walls - it also shows the effects that humankind has had on it in its constant activity of war. Wall are missing and rooms are littered with rumble. Moreover, there is danger in paradise with the threat of unexploded bombs and mines booby trapped within the villa. It is these reminders of war that symbolise the great depths humanity had fallen, with mines killing indiscrimately anyone who may come in their way. The bombed ruins in what was once acclaimed as the most civilised of places (Florence) reveal that there is no correspondence between civilisation - humanity's great feats of culture, its art and literature - and any innate goodness and humanity. The novel, through this symbolism, shows that all the claims of so-called civilised nations that they have risen above savagery in their quest for civilisation, and have often asserted their superiority over other nations because of their civilised ways, is not true as their actions have been as barbaric as any in history.

Significantly the villa was once used as a nunnery and a hospital. It is in these aspects that it echoes the idea that the villa, besides being a bombed ruin, is a place of healing and possible spiritual redemption. The destroyed chapel attached to it may show that institutionalised religion have little power in a world a power politics and nationalism, but within the villa, with no formal religious ties, it can still be a healing place where the characters seek redemption through simply helping others. This is certainly the case for Hana who dedicates herself to the dying English patient, while Caravaggio also overcomes his hatred and plans of revenge, finally accepting the English patient as no longer responsible for the torture he suffered. Hana and Kip also find love here and it is only events in the outside world, so momentous as the dropping of the atomic bomb that separates them.

Another important aspect of the villa is that it had long lost the divisions, the borders that separated one room from another or the inside from the outside. In many ways the villa and the garden flowed into one another - 'There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remains of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms.' (43 ) This suggests metaphorically that unlike the outside world where nationalities are divided up according to border lines the Villa San Girolama is a place free of these impositions and all the characters are finally able to transcend their constructed national identities.

The other important setting in the novel is the desert. Unlike Europe it had no borders and was a place where one could lose all notions of identity and nationality. According to the English patient 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, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the east.' This evocative passage reveals the impermanence of all things. Ownership and possession are Western notions when it comes to land, and have no meaning in the desert. For the English patient it is a liberation from his old ways of understanding and sees that concepts such as identity and nationality are constructs that deceive the individual. People's ideas of their identity were tied to where they came from, yet in the desert this disappears: ' All of us ... wished to remove the clothing of our countries.' Finally he wants to shed himself from this restriction and be free of such things - 'Erase the family name! Erase nations. I was taught such things by the desert.' (139) It is this collective identity that had led to wars through their pride in ownership and their intrinsic sense of being distinct and superior that had then manifested itself in imposing their beliefs on others.

The English patient repeats this idea of losing all notions of identity and nationality when he claims that being in the desert for two weeks made him forget the crowded metropolis where the self is stifled: 'the idea of the city never entered his mind' and it was the 'place they had chosen to come, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry' (246). Through this the desert is seen as a place of redemption where one can transcend the stifling constructed notions of who we are (self and identity) as well as a world preoccupied with money and war. The English patient states this spirituality of the desert when he says, '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 despots shaped the world.' (250). In the desert preoccupations of materialistic gain do not exist, 'In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.' (23)

The novel uses the desert as a metaphor. The desert defies national identity; it disappears and reappears as a changed landscape and can only be defined by its indefinability. The desert refuses to be mapped, an activity that attempts to impose artificial borders and fabricated identities. The English patient suggests it is therefore a place of freedom where artificial boundaries are shown as destructive: 'All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith ... ' (139)

Ondaatje critique of nationalism is shown by using the desert as a metaphor to highlight that all notions of difference, the lines we draw on maps, the places we name are all artificial and are in essence destructive.

5. Symbolism

Patterns of imagery, symbol and metaphor inform a reading of the novel as much as character or plot. The novel starts with an image of a man on fire falling from the air to earth and then investigates why this has happened and the identity of the man. The plot moves back and forth, incorporating a series of related images - fire, scars, mutilated hands, bombs, warfare and healing as well as a fascination with esoteric knowledge. Added to this are the four main characters who together form another image: a constellation, perhaps, of the four elements, but essentially fire.

On another level the novel operates on symbolism, with the desert and water, books, names, paintings, mirrors and religious symbolism all being essential parts that signify central ideas in the text.

Fire is the central symbol in the novel. The English patient falls burning from the sky ('I fell burning into the desert. I flew down and the sand itself caught fire. 5') and the narrative revolve around his burnt body. Hana is devoted to her patient as her own father had died of burns: 'So burned the buttons of his shirt were part of his skin, part of his dear chest.' Caravaggio also while escaping is thrown into a burning river ('He swam up to the surface, parts of which were on fire.') and his ascent through burning water parallels and inverts The English patient's descent on fire. And Kip works each day as a sapper with the threat of fire.

The symbolism of fire can be seen as having both political and personal significance. In the former sense the novel is concerned with the interaction between private identity and public events, and with the inescapable intrusions of geopolitical forces into people's lives. The villa may be a haven from the war but the text moves towards the terrible apocalyptic event of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The symbolism of fire culminates in Kip's vision of Asia: 'He sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map ...284' In this case all characters have foreshadowed the apocalypse that ends the war and the novel. They have each been scarred physically or psychologically from fire and in the microcosm of the villa they represents the world that is to come. It also captures on the visual level the horrific cities with people burning to death, while also symbolising the ultimate destruction and pain that fire brings in this context.

Besides being a novel that fits into the genres of war, spy thriller and historical research it is a love story. It is in these personal dimensions of the novel that fire in a more conventional way symbolises passion. In the English patient's diary he had written: 'the heart is an organ of fire.' 97) The cause of all the events emanates from the passion and love that turns to jealousy and anger felt by Clifton. Finding his wife had deceived him he attempts to kill all of them: from this the narrative evolves.

All the characters are bound by love and loss, absence and desire. In the relationship between the English patient and Katharine their love is an all-consuming fire of passion. But her death becomes a literal fire which burns away every trace of her lover's identity, leaving him as an anonymous patient in an English hospital.

Ironically this anonymity and loss of identity is what he had desired. He didn't believe in nations and family names: "Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn't want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the famly names! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.' (139) Also ironic is that this is achieved only by having his body reduced by fire to a blackened scar.

The love relationship between Hana and Kip is also ended by the news of the apocalyptic fire over Asia. Though Hana tries to explain she had nothing to do with this Kip sees all white nations as representing the one oppressive and cruel power that had always ruled, to which he had been blinded before. This realisation arrives only after his 'vision of fire'.

There are also other parallels between characters that have the image of fire at their centre. Onto the anonymous and unreadable map of the English patient's body Hana, and Kip project their own passions. For Hana he becomes every man who she had watched die under her care and more importantly her own father who dies from burns. Kip sees in him the one good Englishman he knew, Lord Suffolk, who dies from in the fire from an exploded bomb.

The opposite to fire is water and this is also used as an important symbol in the novel. Interestingly the English patient is associated with fire and also the desert, while Katharine is aligned with water, an element essential in surviving both fire and desert. She is seen as 'happier in the rain, in bathrooms steaming with liquid air, in sleepy wetness' (170), while he found peace in the starkness, the dryness of desert ('Everything that ever happened to me that wa important happened in the desert.' 177) Their love is in many ways based on their opposing nature and for the English patient, who is frequently aligned with the desert, he needs her as 'in the desert you celebrate nothing but water.'(23) In this context water is the traditional symbol of life and sustenance, making it possible for both to survive.Katharine is also said to have only a 'temporary passion for the desert' (171) and she is a stranger who cannot live fully here, just as their love relationship ended, not because of a lack of love but the inability to survive in a different element. The description of water in the desert early in the novel, foreshadows this event: 'Water is the exile, carried back in cans and flasks, the ghost between your hands and mouth.' (19)


Books are used symbolically, though they vary between characters. The English patient is a learned man who looks to books to give him information about the world and himself. His Herodotus is a prized possession, full of stories that give insights in human existence, but it has served a functional use in teaching him about the desert, almost a map where he had found towns and caves. For him Herodotus did not simply tell of the past, but 'the histories in Herodotus clarified all societies.' (150). Hana uses books as an escape from the present, 'she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.' (7) It is also Hana who repairs the staircase with twenty books, thus making it possible to reach the English patient in his room, and symbolically representing how books can be used to reach out and understand others.

In contrast Kip distrust books ('He did not yet have faith in books), which is not surprising as all the books were English and it was these books, such as Kim, that perpetuated the values and beliefs of the colonial conquerors, and represented the privileged position of Westerners as natural.

Individual books also are used symbolically in The English Patient to draw parallels between the two. Kim sets up another level of meaning in relation to colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism that foreshadow Kip's realisation at the close of the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is another text written by a white man showing the dispossession and genocide of an Indian race. In both cases they show the European's disregard and disdain for cultures other than their own; a sentiment forgrounded in the novel when the two cities of Japan are destroyed and Kip and Caravaggio agree that this would not have happened if they were a white race.

The symbolism of burned body

The novel explores the way imperial discourses have been used to subjugate and oppress non-European nations and cultures, constructing them as the 'Other' and consequently legitimating their dominance in the name of progress, christianity and civilisation. It is in this context of the novel that the blackness of the charred skin of the English patient can be seen as representing these imperial discourses and the demise of white male civilisation ravaged by WW11 and the onslaught of nuclear war. Moreover, it questions the very identity of Englishness and the white imperial discourse is now shown as a burnt-out discourse (soon realised in the demise of imperialistic colonies and the rise of independent indigenous nations) which reveals that the Empire has been expelled and been replaced with the rights of the indigenous people.

Initially Kip is enamoured with the white culture that represents civilisation and refined manners despite it positioning him as an inferior and destroying his cultural identity. He acknowledges later that his brother had been right in defying and fighting the English and that he had been tricked ('oh, we were easily impressed - by speeches and medals and your ceremonies' 285). Being a colonised subject he had been positioned to accept his own culture's inferiority and though marginalised and oppressed through history Kip still comes to the rescue of his master's civilisation, showing how thoroughly he had internalised the dominant ideology. This idea is shown metaphorically when he is consumed by Western civilisation when on his first training mission he finds himself in the heart of white civilisation, 'Then he descended, down into the great white chalk horse of Westbury, into the whiteness of the horse, carved into the hill.' (181)

The novel traces the change in Kip's attitude and his subsequent decolonisation when he learns of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He defies all things English as represented by the English Patient and returns home to become a doctor. He journey on a motor bike through Italy from Florence through other cultural centres is a symbolical journey backwards through these icons of Western civilisation, shedding himself of acculturation and beliefs of the West which he had been forced to see as the apex of civilised culture


The narrative point of view in The English Patient is unconventional in the manner that it relays the events of the novel as it continously shifts between different modes of narration (third person through various characters, first person monologues by the EP about the past and entries written years before that are pasted in a copy of Herodotus), juxtaposing past and present and by often telling about specific events only to speak of the immediate time before these events at a later point in the novel. In its very structure the narrative point of view is integral to an examination of the central concerns of the text, especially in its exploration of the concepts of identity, truth and reality, all of which the novel constructs as arbitrary, shifting and unstable.

On one level the narrative point of view in The English Patient through its fragmentation and constant shifting from one voice to another is similar to the metaphor of the desert used in the novel: '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, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East.' It is a device used to add ambiguity to the novel, to show that identity, truth and reality are problematic and that traditional narrations fail to acknowledge these aspects of human experience. The narrative point of view shows that the idea of 'knowing' anyone or anything is complex and cannot be adequately relayed through traditional linear narratives and narrators who present a version of reality with an authorative presumption. More importantly, the very device of presuming to 'know' is false and Ondaatje goes to great lengths to undermine this notion of omniscience.

These ideas are shown when the narrative point of view shifts between past and present without clear demarcation, often causing the reader to be uncertain about the very nature of the narrative. In conjunction with other narrative devices, especially the EP's narration while under morphine, it creates an ambiguity that is at the core of the novel: is the EP Almasy the spy or someone else? Are the stories reliable? Are their words really depicting what is and has gone before? The novel also draws attention to the nature of words ('Words are tricky things') and the articiality of the written word, in particular the novel itself. The English Patient is self-reflexive, as it draws attention to its own artificiality. The reader is not lulled into a linear narrative that constructs an illusion of reality, but the reader is enlisted as an active participant in a process of reading, which constantly draws attention to the fact that what we are reading is a story, not because of content , but the form and structure of the npov.

The English Patient is seen as a postmodern novel in the way it questions the nature of stories, emphasising its constructed nature. One way this is done is through drawing attention to the intertextuality of all works of fiction - that is, all texts are not just works of genius but informed by the existence of other texts. This aspect of the novel is shown in the way Ondaatje consciously uses other famous books in his narrative (Kim, Herodotus, Anna Karenina, The Charterhous eof Palma) as echoing important ideas. The references to them form a subtext in the novel , giving echoes of the stories that have gone before that have explored similar ideas. More importantly is his use of the palimpsest, where Herodotus is pasted over with other texts - some from the Bible or EP's own personal writings. This pastiche effect reiterates the postmodern notion that all texts are constructs and fragmentary as well as serving to take away the authority of Herodotus (in this case representing all great works) by replacing them with other texts that tell of other stories. It shows that all books are versions and from a particular point of view but by the uses of the palimpsests give a voice to otherr stories that have been buried just as colonial powers had buried the languages and cultures that they had conquered.

The novel explores the notion of reality, truth and fact, showing them to be not fixed and stable, but arbitrary and shifting. This is achieved in the novel through the repeated references to mapping, esp;ionage, the architectural structure of the villa, the trompe l'oeil murals and mirages whuch all function as tropes that refract and reflect these notions about identity, and all these ideas are in-built into the structure of the narrative itself with all things appearing as not as they seem.

The frequency in which events are narrated with an incremental addition of detail in the pivotal events between Almasy and Katherine reveals not the whole story but fragments that must be picked up by the reader. Often the event is shown first and the time leading up to it is revealed later. Again this disrupts the reader's usual expectations from a novel and forces them to link together fragments to make meaning instead of having it told chronologically with cause and effect as the main structural device. Besides questioning the way we experience time this method adds to those notions that question the way menory records experience and how we rearrange them to create stories about ourselves which are part of our own identity. The1942 crash which causes the burn are related twice, both versions told by the English patient before he tells us about the 1939 crash, in which Katherine is injured.

The 1939 crash is told briefly (171) though we have already been told one of the versions of leaving Katherine in the cave before (169-170). Greater detail of the crash is then given later (256-257) and there are three versions of leaving Katherine in the cave (169-170, 248-249, 256-261). The reader is left with having to experience the selective memories in the same way that the EP recalls them rather than chronologically and certainly without cause leading up clearly to the event.

This complexity within the narrative structure subverts the traditional mode of a linear narrative, drawing attention to the story as a construct as well as questioning the way time is experienced, especially in memory. It also destabilises notions the reader may have on the veracity of the stories as the English patient is telling these memories while being administered massive doses of morphine. On another level it might be asked how truthful can this story be as he has been a spy and he is telling it to Caravaggio, a man who has been a spy and a thief. The question of reliability is still present even after we are told the mystery of his identity.

On another level the npov can be understood in the way it does function to give certain information and insights into characters. At times the reader hears EP's writing as read by Hana as they appear pasted into Herodotus. Most of the things said by EP are either in these poetic writings or as long monologues as he recalls his story to a listening Hana. In all these the EP reveals he is an erudite and intelligent man with a sensitivity to the complexities of life. He speaks in poetic diction: 'I have always had information like a sea in me. I am a person who if left alone in someone's home walks to the bookcase, pulls down a volume and inhales it. So history enters us.' (18) and he tells evocative exotic stories of the desert which are more introspective and concerned with his more personal observations. This is juxtaposed with the narrator's third-person account which often picks up from EP's musings and then tells of the more prosaic details related to plot.

It is used to position the reader to sympathise with certain characters, understanding the way they interpret the world. Excluding dialogue it is only the EP who the reader ever hears speak in first-person. The reader, who is already sympathetic as this man has suffered terrible burns, is a witness to hi s story, seeing it from his perspective, and as he is constructed as an intelligent, erudite man who seems to have transcended the material world we are sympathetic. More persuausive perhaps is his great love for Katherine who his loses, and we come to see that any acts that have caused harm have been as a result of his need to return to her in the cave.

The Texts and Contexts section is in basically about identity - how identity is constructed by discourses operating in society which are then 're-presented' in literature. Discuss the representation of identity in a text in the light of this comment.

Identity is a construct: the ways an individual understands what it is to belong to a certain gender, race or cultural identity is initially constructed by the discourses operating in society which naturalises certain ways of knowing what it is to belong to this social group. Literature can either perpetuate or challenge these notions through the representations of these groups. In The English Patient Ondaatje writing in the 1990's about the second World War questions the very notion of identity, showing how the dominant discourse of Western imperialism and civilisation have dispossessed those people of different races and cultural identities.

The novel foregrounds the the way non-Western nations had been colonised and dispossessed by European imperialism. Kip, the Sikh sapper, is shown throughout the novel to be the most sensitive and intelligent of men, yet he has been treated as an inferior by the British because of his race. Western civilisation on the other hand, which has always regards itself as racially and culturally superior (a belief Kip had inadvertently internalised in India) is constructed by the text to be simply materialistic, belligerent and lacking spirituality. The novel's final scenes reveal these values with the apocalyptic atomic bomb dropped being on Japan and Kip believing that the West would have never dropped an atomic bomb on a white race.

The English Patient explores these ideas of racial and cultural identity through the events and conflicts, yet Ondaatje also shows these complex ideas through other novelistic techniques such as symbolism and intertextuality. Throughout the novel Kip is used to symbolise the colonised East and this is seen through the importance of his name and its link with Rudyard Kipling's Kim.

Kim is the most important intertext in the novel. Kipling represents the old traditional forces of imperialism, where the British colonised in the name of civilisation and dispossessed the Indians of their land and cultural heritage. Kip, unlike his brother, has accepted this and had become 'English' in many ways. His name Kirpal Singh is changed to 'Kip', which combines both 'Kim' and 'Kipling'. Ondaatje's Kip can be seen to represent the drama of the indigenous person becoming decolonised, as he rebels finally at the end seeing how he had been tricked, and the English patient being the burnt-out imperial discourse. Through these techniques the text reveals through its representation of race and cultural identity a critique of Western notions of identity and supports the liberation of dispossessed races from the tyranny of the West.

Kip recognises his own colonisation when he confronts the English patient with his belief that the West would never had used such a weapon on a white race.

'My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The map drawers ... But we, oh, we were easily impressed - by speeches and medals and your ceremonies. What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen? (284)

This outburst signifies Kip's despair over all the beliefs and practices he had embraced. It marks his final understanding of his race's subservient position in the colonial relationship and he renounces all the things that he thinks the English patient stands for. In some cases this is ironic and Kip is mistaken as the English patient is not English and he shuns nationalism, possessions and the things Kip equates with the English. However it is more as a symbol that he sees the English as and recognises how he had been made into an 'Englishman' in some of his earlier attitudes. More importantly Kip equates war on other non-European nations as a distinctly English trait ('American, French, I don't care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you're an Englishman ... You all learned it from the English' 286).

Kip also rejects the cultural map that had been drawn over his own, together with his name. This rejection is mapped out in Kip's leaving and retracing his route - 'travelling against the direction of the invasion' (290) - through Florence, Greve, Cortona, Arezzo, Sansepolcro and Gabicce Mare to Ortona. Through this he consciously sheds himself of the cultural heritage that had shaped and enveloped him. At the end the narrative finds him as Kirpal Singh in India, a country that had also become independent in 1947.

The devastated Europe in 1945 can also be seen in a post-colonial reading as an end of imperialism and the English patient, a burnt out case, symbolises the end of notions of cultural superiority and heroism. Significantly he always carries a copy of Herodotus' Histories, the first narrative history of the ancient world and one whose main theme was the enmity between East and West. He changes the nature of this history as he has turned it into a 'commonplace book', inserting into its text pages of other books and his own observations. This subversion of the authority of the text is also seen in the way he refutes the conventions of colonial mapping by recognising that the 'desert could not be claimed or owned' (138), and that it had existing, beautiful names over which no new ones should be inscribed.

The image of the palimpsest is repeatedly used to show how one text is buried by another or added to. This represents the way indigenous cultures have been mapped and written over by other dominant cultures. This has happened in history by colonial and imperialist forces who have dispossessed the indigenous people of their language and customs and replaced it with their own.

The relationship between colonised and coloniser seen in the references to David and Goliath and the painting by Caravaggio of the same name. These represent the old relationship of the old oppressor with seemingly invincible power (European imperialism) being slayed by the small and weak by (indigenous nations)

Civilisation has often been represented by the ordered garden that has tamed Nature, while the desert is represented as dry, infertile and unstable with its borders built on shifting sands. Significantly it is in the desert that fulfilment can be obtained and the destructive forces of nationalism are abandoned and seen for their divisive nature.


The novel evolves around the question of whether the English patient is English or Hungarian, a victim or a former spy, yet the crucial issue of identity is transferred at the end to Kip.

The English patient talks about the 'accident of nationality', claiming it is the cause of disputes and wars. It is an absurd and futile notion and he loves the desert as out there all sense of nationality and even identity disappears.

The novel presents two varying versions of identity. The English patient sees it as the cause of war and hatred, a catalyst to intolerance and prejudice. He wants to shed himself of such constructed notions and become a man without family or nation. This is a spiritual act, similar to some Eastern religions, where the self is perceived as an illusion and peace can only come after this perception is transcended. The text endorses this viewpoint to a degree as the reader had witnessed throughout the novel the horrors of war that have resulted from nationalism and a sense of cultural identity.

However the novel also shows how Kip sheds the cultural identity of the English imposed upon him and returns to his roots, a member of a small nation with its traditions that he takes up by being the second son who becomes a doctor. His also rids himself of the name given to him by the English, with all of its suggestions of colonialism inherent in Kipling and Kim, and takes back his native name of Kirpal Singh. This is also seen as a positive act of liberation as he has now realised how he and his people had been exploited and treated like inferior subjects of a greater power.

Ondaatje uses the names of his characters at both a thematic and metafictional level to define the central dynamic of his narrative.

Kip - see post-colonial reading/Caravaggio/Herodotus - the book that the English patient carries with him has great significance to the issues explored in the novel as Herodotus was the first historian of the ancient world, especially the desert countries that the English patient surveys.


The Histories by Herodotus is the most important literary text referred to in The English Patient as it is a book the English patient carries with him at all times and is constantly mentioned in the narration and dialogue. Herodotus was the first historian of the ancient world, and he explored the enmity between East and West, saying the two could never be reconciled. Two thousand years later the reader can see that this is still the case and it is this realisation that drives Kip to his renunciation of the West, claiming that they would have 'never dropped the bomb on a white nation.'

The Histories by Herodotus which the English patient cherishes does not remain the authority on matters though and he adds to it, pasting in pages from other books, especially the Bible, and writing in his observations. The book, which carries all this other information, becomes an example of intertextuality, a concept that refers to the way literary texts themselves can be understood. Instead of being simply 'influence' or 'allusion', intertextuality is an active interaction between texts and this interaction is the very precondition for the existence of a text. In the novel Ondaatje translates this theoretical concept (interaction between texts) into literal images. The English patient writes his own observations into the blank pages of Herodotus. Hana also does the same with books in the villa's library, especially The Last of the Mohicans ('She opens The Last of the Mohicans to the blank page at the back and begins to write in it. There is a man called Caravaggio, a friend of my father's. I have always loved him.')

Through this Ondaatje shows the connection between texts, how they are created and conceived. While Hana discloses her feelings in blank pages of books and the English patient writes out his love for Kathaine Clifton, Ondaatje does the same in the novel by quoting endlessly from other texts, such as Kim, The Charterhouse of Parma The Last of the Mohican, Paradise Lost and works of Christopher Smart. On one level this operates to echo and reinforce thematic concerns in the novel. Kim sets up another level of meaning in relation to colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism that foreshadow Kip's realisation at the close of the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is another text written by a white man showing the dispossession and genocide of an Indian race. In both cases they show the European's disregard and disdain for cultures other than their own; a sentiment foregrounded in the novel when the two cities of Japan are destroyed and Kip and Caravaggio agree that this would not have happened if they were a white race.

On another level though the intertextuality shows the power of words. They are instruments of love and weapons to destroy. The English patient falls in love with the voice of Katharine as she tells the story of Candaules and Gyges from The Histories. The story is in one way the catalyst for their love affair and events that take place after. She tells the story of the ancient King Candaules who is so proud of his wife's beauty that he did not believe any other man could conceive of her great beauty. He forces his friend Gyges to view her naked, but the queen sees him and later tells him that he must die himself or kill the king for seeing what was not his. Gyges kills Candaules and marries the queen. In her narration she makes the clear implication that she is the queen, her husband Candaules and the English patient must play the role of Gyges. The English patient does act the part of Gyges as lover but ironically it is Geoffrey Clifton who attempts to kill her rival. Thus the events in the novel as shown are closely intertwined with the narratives of the past (the story in Herodotus in this case), as if the same stories are constantly being retold, only in different forms - just as love and jealousy are acted out in worlds thousands of years apart.

In this way parallels are drawn between texts and one narrative informs and projects itself onto another. Moreover it is not passive but an interactive relationship where story is responsible for the creation of another.

Characters like Caravaggio and Kip in the novel often mention the power of words. Caravaggio notes that 'Words are tricky things' and
The villa is also full of books, most echoing important issues and concerns in the novel. Novels that deal with lost love, the might of Empire and the exploitation of indigenous people. Hana and EP both find solace in books, an escape from this world, while Kip does not trust books as most are part of the cultural heritage of European civilisation, a culture that had imposed its own beliefs over his own people's.

The EP thought that it might be at the same villa where Poliziano lived also gives its another level of significance 57. This imbues the villa with the cultural tradition of the Renaissance. In history it was a meeting place of the past and the new ('Pico and Lorenzo and Poliziano and the young Michelangelo. They held in each hand the new world and the old world') This is paralleled with 1945 where the world was about to change with the dropping of the bomb and the end of colonialism was soon to occur, significantly with the independence of India in 1947. Microcosm of world outside.

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