Postmodern Fiction and Film
Love, Nation and War in The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) is composed of many aspects: war, nation, colonialism, postcolonialism, race, geography, love, history and so on. The major frame of this novel is constituted by two love stories: Almásy and Katharine before and during the World War II; Hana and Kip after the war. The film (1997) especially focused on Almásy and Katharine’s romance. For a film, a love story is always a successful way to attract audiences’ attention. The adulterous love between Almásy and Katharine has immediately been transformed into a great love story. It is just like what Almásy writes in his book The Histories by Herodotus that betray in the war is simpler than in peace. Therefore, their love story is an attracting material for a film. But what does the function or the significance of the love stories in the novel? I think the love story of Almásy and Katharine is a parallel of W.W.II. (1939-1945) in a way. It is a parallel of ownership and devoting.
The love story of Almásy and Katharine began in 1936, and ended with Katharine’s death in 1942. Before Katharine enters into Almásy’s life, he completely devotes himself into mapping and exploring in the desert. From 1931 to 1934, Almásy enjoys working with his partners who come from different nations. They work with some desert tribes who Almásy praises as “the most beautiful humans” (138) he has met in his life. Nations are insignificant to these tribes. As a result, Almásy comes to hate nations. For him, the beautiful desert belongs to none: “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” (138-139).
However, everything changes after Katharine appears in Almásy’s life. If we parallel the love story with the war—the invasion of England, we can see Almásy’s change during the war. During the war, every empire needs those maps of desert to help them explore their boundary. Their desire for the desert is for military purpose; it is just like Katharine’s “passion for the desert was temporary” (170). She is not like Almásy, who is willing to devote all his life to the desert and die in a cave. If Katharine is an emblem of English, then Almásy is obsessed with her. Though he tells Katharine that he hates “ownership” the most, he cannot help himself wanting her and possessing her. If Katharine is not with him, Almásy cannot concentrate on anything. All he needs is Katharine’s love. This passion and obsession finally cause a disaster: the death of Katharine and her husband Geoffery Clifton in a plane crash in 1939.
After the plane crash, Almásy tries his effort to rescue Katharine out of the desert. At that time, the war has begun. In order to ask for help, he gives his knowledge of the desert to German, and is taken as a spy later. Besides, he still cannot go back to the Cave of Swimmers until he promises to take Eppler across the desert. He is taken as a German or later an English patient. Thus, his national identity is blurred.
There are contradictories in The English Patient about the question of nation inspired by the love story of Almásy and Katharine. On the one hand, Ondaatje criticizes the notion of nation. For instance, Madox dies because of nation. It seems that nation could be a danger for individuals. On the other, Ondaatje also uses the love story in the desert to criticize the betrayal on nation. In order to love and save Katharine, Almásy betrays the nation. As a result, the love story of Almasy and Katharine can be regarded as a representation and a critique of W.W.II.