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The English Patient

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The English Patient
First edition cover
Author(s) Michael Ondaatje
Cover artist Cecil Beaton (first edition)
Country Canada
Language English
Genre(s) Historiographic metafiction, Novel
Publisher McClelland and Stewart
Publication date September 1992
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 320 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-7710-6886-7 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC Number 26257641

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 English accented Hungarian man, his Canadian nurse, a Canadian-Italian 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 was adapted into an award-winning film of the same name in 1996. The narrative is non-linear and the main characters are examined in depth and detail.

Plot summary

The historical backdrop for this novel is the Second World War in Northern Africa and Italy. Hana, a young Canadian Army nurse, lives in the abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy, which is filled with hidden, undetonated bombs. All she knows about her English patient 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 cartography group. He chose, however, 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. 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, Katharine, accompanied the patient's desert exploration team. The Patient's job was to draw maps of the desert, and the Cliftons' plane made this job easier. Almásy fell in love with Katharine 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.

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, and takes Katharine with him. However, Geoffrey turns around and crashes his plane in an effort to kill all three of them, revealing he had known about the affair. Geoffrey 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 three 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 escaped, he knew it was too late to save Katharine, so he allowed himself to be captured by the Germans, helping their spy cross the desert into Cairo. He then returns to collect Katherine's body; however while flying over the desert, the aircraft is observed by Germans and shot down into flames. 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 on the wireless that the United States have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. He becomes depressed and separates himself from everyone, including Hana. He eventually leaves.

Characters in The English Patient


Count Ladislaus de 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 as 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 centre 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.

The character is loosely based on László Almásy, who was actually homosexual, a well-known desert explorer in 1930s Egypt and who helped the German side in World War II. Almásy did not suffer burns or die in Italy, but survived the war and lived until 1951.


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. Then she 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. A strong relationship with sapper, Kip, is also formed during his stay at the villa.


Triumph 3HW 350cc motorcycle used by Kip in the novel

Kirpal (Kip) Singh is an Indian Sikh. Kip was trained to be a sapper officer 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.

The one place in England where Kip is completely and unreservedly accepted is the household of Lord Suffolk, the eccentric English nobleman who develops the practice of dismantling unexploded German bombs, a complicated and highly dangerous discipline – and who becomes Kip's mentor, friend and in effect surrogate father. Kip's emotional withdrawal becomes more pronounced when Lord Suffolk and his team are killed while attempting to dismantle a new type of bomb, which detonated. (It should be noted that Charles Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk, was an actual historical person, who did develop the practice of dismantling bombs and was indeed killed in the manner described in the book).

After this event, Kip is ordered to 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 but Kip stays on to clear the large number of mines and booby-traps he believes the Germans have left and sets-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 21st birthday, a symbol of their friendship and Kip's acceptance. He leaves and never returns, though later in his life he often thinks of Hana.


David 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 had 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.

Caravaggio hears of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan and comments that he does not believe the Americans would have dropped it on a country of white people. Michael Ondaatje stated in an interview on BBC Radio 4 broadcast 9 August 2012, that most people think this comment is attributed to Kip, but it was in fact Caravaggio.

Katharine Clifton

Katharine is the wife of Geoffrey Clifton. She has an affair with Almásy which her husband discovers. 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. The day 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.

Geoffrey Clifton

Katharine Clifton's husband. He joins Almásy's exploration group as another desert explorer, but is in fact on a secret mission of the British government (military intelligence) to make detailed maps of North Africa. The plane he "owns" is not a "wedding present," but Crown property. To perform his mission, he leaves his beautiful young wife in the desert with the real explorers. Everything else follows.

Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton were based on Sir Robert Clayton East-Clayton, 9th Baronet of Marden, and 5th Baronet of Hall Place, Maidenhead, and his wife, Dorothy, both of whom were dead by the time the novel takes place. Clayton's plane, a Gipsy I Moth, was called "Rupert", and both he and Dorothy were pilots. Clayton died of acute anterior poliomyelitis contracted within two months of completing an actual spring 1932 expedition to the Gilf Kebir for which he hired Almásy and Pat Clayton (the basis for the character of Madox); Dorothy died in an airplane accident in 1933.

Film adaptation

In 1996, it was made into a film of the same name by Anthony Minghella, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth and Naveen Andrews.

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