Vivian Liao (487206017)
Postmodern Fiction and Film
June 10, 2000
Representation of postcolonial identity in The English Patient
During my reading of The English Patient by Michael Ondaagje, I am really attracted by the many-layered narrative of two intriguing love stories of Kip and Hana In a Italian villa after World War II and of Almasy and Katherine in South Cairo during 1930-1938. To me, what makes the two love stories usual and beguiling is their relationships with the issues of war and race. It is clear to see that this novel explores what a postcolonial identity is. From my understanding in the course of Postcolonial identity last semester, a postcolonial identity, in Spivak¡¦s definition, is fragmented, plural, and hybrid because each individual postcolonial subject is constructed by both the colonizer and by his or her own colonized country. Moreover, owing to the economic development of late capitalism, a postcolonial identity is transnational. In terms of treating the subject of a postcolonial identity, Michael Ondaatje¡¦s The English Patient seems to not so successful, compared to the postcolonial fiction I read in other courses, Midnight Children by Indian writer Salman Rushdie, Anthills of the Savannah by Nigerian writer Chinaua Achebe¡¦s, and Salt by Caribbean writer Earl Lovelace,
In The English Patient, the two love relationships between Almasy and Katherine, and between Kip and Hana, parallel the two historical periods¡Xcolonial age and postcolonial age. The four main characters, Kip, Hana, Almasy, and Katherine are from different nations respectively¡XIndia, Canada, Hungary, and England. Because of the influence of World War II and love, the boundary of nationhood or race presented in this novel seems to be shattered. The identity of Almasy is multiple. Almasy is a Hungrian, and later in the desert is misidentified as a German spy. In the Italian villa, he is regarded as an ¡§English¡¨ patient by Hana. Moreover, in the love relationship between Almasy and Katherine, we can see the controversy over ownership, which is an important issue of colonialism. To begin their act of colonization, the colonizer assumes the ownership of the colonized countries. This notion of ¡§ownership¡¨ is reflected in Almasy¡¦s words to Katherine. Almasy reveals to Katherine that he hates ownership the most; nevertheless, he himself, like Katherine, still has a kind of possessive love toward his lover. Moreover, Almasy¡¦s job of mapping, drawing the boundary between countries, symbolically suggests the imperial Britain¡¦s colonization of other countries¡¦ land. In addition, Almasy¡¦s ¡§stealing¡¨ of Katherine¡¦s love and body from her husband Geoffrey Clifton also corresponds to the question of ownership. The failed union of Almasy and Katherine may imply the impossibility of claiming absolute and permanent ownership.
Contrasting to that between Almasy and Katherine, the love between Kip and Hana is not so bounded by ownership. Their love is based more on mutual respect and understanding. Although racial differences still exists between them, they attempt to understand each other¡¦s culture. For example, having realize that she mistakes India as all Asian, Hana read a great amount of books on India so as to learn Indian culture more. Furthermore, Hana and Kip are able to leave space and freedom for each other in their love relationship. Their final union may suggest that through giving up the insistence of ownership, colonial relationship can reach an end, and racial reconciliation is possible.
However, Michael Ondaatije¡¦s representation of fragmentation of a postcolonial identity is not so clear to. In the English Patient, we can see images of fragmented human bodies to suggest the disposses condition of a postcolonial identity, such as the English patient¡¦s burned body, Katherine¡¦s broken ribs, Caravaggio¡¦s cut thumbs, and the dismembered body of Lord Suffolk. Their fragmented identity may have close relationship with World War II and love. Nevertheless, it is not obvious to me how each character¡¦s fragmented identity is affected by colonial or postcolonial experiences.
In addition, I don¡¦t think Michael Ondaatje¡¦s choice of Herodotus¡¦ The Histories for characters to reconstruct their identities, particularly the English patient, is effective enough. The main theme of this Greek historian Herodiotus¡¦ work deals with the struggle between Asia and Europe which culminated in the Persian invasions of Greece. This book of classical history is basically a western, canonical one. Therefore, I would like to question that how it can help every character to reconstruct his or her own ¡§postcolonial identity. It is no doubt that a personal history is significant to how one retrieve his or her identity or root. Therefore, we can see that the history of the betrayal of King Lydia¡¦s wife with Gyes is a parallel to and an origin of Almasy¡¦s personal history. Consequently, by recounting his love story with Katherine, he in the meanwhile reconstructs his identity. Nonetheless, I can¡¦t see how Kip, Hana, and Caravaggio can recontruct their postcolonial identities by hearing the Englilsh patient¡¦s personal history or his telling of Herodotus¡¦ The Histories. Besides, I can¡¦t figure out why Michael Ondaatje selects a nunnery in an Italian villa as a place for the characters to reconstruct their identities. It is understandable that the darkness of the Italian villa may symbolically suggest the invisibility of one¡¦s national identity. However, I still can¡¦t figure out why the author chooses Italy, a western country, as an international world for characters from both the West and the East to build their sense of identity.