“She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.”

It’s been about two months since I first opened “The English Patient.” In a masterstroke of stupidity, I picked up the book during final exam week of the fall quarter. Needless to say, I did much more reading than studying that week. Usually, I get the feeling of not being able to put a book down because the plot is exceptionally compelling, and drives me forward. This experience was different. “The English Patient” does have a compelling plot, but it accumulates slowly. A nurse, Hana, and her English patient are staying in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Formerly a hospital, the villa has been abandoned by the other doctors, nurses and patients.

The first section of the book is sparse and airy, but foreshadows a great deal of emotional depth. There is a sense of feeling only a few raindrops that precede a downpour, a light breeze that precedes a sandstorm. There’s something elemental and rhythmic about the compelling nature of this book, and the forces which act upon its characters, and compel them to act in return. The opening paragraph of the book illustrates this beautifully:

She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, felling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia quickly and enters the house. (p. 1)

In this first paragraph, the reader is also introduced to two recurring themes that play a prominent role in the book: water—necessary for life, especially in the harsh setting of the desert, and present wherever strong emotions are found throughout the book—and nakedness—physical nakedness that reveals characters’ pasts through features of their bodies, and emotional nakedness that reveals their feelings, both making them vulnerable. In this way, Michael Ondaatje’s prose is very poetic, conveying volumes of meaning with individual words and sentences.

Beyond individual word choice, the construction and order of paragraphs within sections, sections within chapters, and chapters within the book as a whole are also meaningful. The structure of the writing mimics the structure of the plot, both the frame story set in the Italian villa at the end of World War II, and the English patient’s past in the desert. Even single paragraphs, like the one below, are microcosms of these nested plots, and the events in the lives of the characters. Parallel events occur in ancient and more recent history, past and present times, and in the lives of different characters.

I am a man who can recognize an unnamed town by its skeletal shape on a map. 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. I knew maps of the sea floor, maps that depict weaknesses in the shield of the earth, charts painted on skin that contain the various routes of the crusades. (p. 18)

All of this is spoken by the English patient, but no quotation marks are used. Dialogue and description flow together, blurring the lines between thoughts and speech, and even between the thoughts and speech of different characters. Sense of time and place are also blurred, as the history of places and civilizations flows into personal history in the English patient’s thoughts:

There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name. The skin bucket spreads water over her, she wraps herself in the cloth, and the old scribe turns from her to describe Zerzura.

So a man in the desert can slip into a name as if within a discovered well, and in its shadowed coolness be tempted never to leave such containment. My great desire was to remain there, among those acacias. I was walking not in a place where no one had walked before but in a place where there were sudden brief populations over the centuries. . . And in between these times—nothing was there. When no rain fell the acacias withered, the wadis dried out. . . until water suddenly reappeared fifty or a hundred years later. Sporadic appearances and disappearances, like legends and rumours through history.

In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence. A woman in Cairo curves the white length of her body up from the bed and leans out of the window into a rainstorm to allow her nakedness to receive it.

Hana leans forward, sensing his drifting, watching him, not saying a word. Who is she, this woman? (pp. 140-141)

It’s pure magic, and endlessly intriguing. The English patient’s past is revealed not in chronological order, but in the order that he shares his memories, from general details to more personal ones. It is unclear whether we learn these things as he remembers them, or if his memory is unblemished all the time, and he only begins to tell his story as the other characters’ curiosity grows. As the book progresses, the sparseness of the Italian villa setting is overtaken by the weighty past that each character brings to it. In addition, the English patient’s seemingly sparse time in the desert is gradually revealed to have been lush and plentiful, in reality. He tells the story in small sections, repeatedly revisiting the same scenarios to add more detail, still overcome with the emotions that he felt in the moment. It is in this context that one of the most compelling passages of the book appears:

The desert fire was between us. The Cliftons, Madox, Bell and myself. If a man leaned back a few inches, he would disappear into darkness. Katharine Clifton began to recite something, and my head was no longer in the halo of the camp’s twig fire.

There was classical blood in her face. Her parents were famous, apparently, in the world of legal history. I am a man who did not enjoy poetry until I heard a woman recite it to us.

And in that desert she dragged her university days into our midst to describe the stars—the way Adam tenderly taught a woman with gracious metaphors. . .

That night I fell in love with a voice. Only a voice. I wanted to hear nothing more. I got up and walked away. . .

A few months later, she waltzed with me, as we danced as a group in Cairo. Though slightly drunk she wore an unconquerable face. Even now the face I believe that most revealed her was the one she had that time when we were both half drunk, not lovers.

All these years I have been trying to unearth what she was handing me with that look. It seemed to be contempt. So it appeared to me. Now I think she was studying me. She was an innocent, surprised at something in me. I was behaving the way I usually behave in bars, but this time with the wrong company. I am a man who kept the codes of my behavior separate. I was forgetting she was younger than I.

She was studying me. Such a simple thing. And I was watching for one wrong move in her statue-like gaze, something that would give her away.

Give me a map and I’ll build you a city. Give me a pencil and I will draw you a room in South Cairo, desert charts on the wall. Always the desert was among us. I could wake and raise my eyes to the map of old settlements along the Mediterranean coasts. . . and surrounding those the shades of yellowness that we invaded, tried to lose ourselves in. “My task is to describe briefly the several expeditions which have attacked the Gilf Kebir. Dr. Bermann will later take us back to the desert as it existed thousands of years ago. . . .”

That is the way Madox spoke to other geographers at Kensington Gore. But you do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history. (pp. 143-145)

These passages are only some examples of the magic that the book contains. This has certainly been a feeble attempt to reduce that power into a short-ish post. I hope to inspire others to read this intensely absorbing book, because I’ve never read anything quite like it before. I’ve read the book again since that first time, and I’ve listened to the audiobook so many times that I lost count. Because it’s so lyrical, hearing the book read out loud is a really fantastic way to experience it, too. Find any version of this book that you can, even if it’s the one with the horrific movie cover.

All passages were quoted from the First Vintage International Edition, December 1993. Copyright 1992 by Michael Ondaatje.

3 thoughts on “She had always wanted words

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