Jessie Juei-yi Chu
Dr. Kate Liu
Postmodern Film and Fiction
Journal of Fiction
Reconstruction of Postcolonial Identity
Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient represents the history of World War II by five main characters, Ladislaus de Almasy, Katherine Clifton, David Caravaggio, Hana, Kirpal Singh in the villa of San Girolamo in Tuscany. Ondaatje begins the novel with the end of World War II and portray the five characters' going through the war experience. The villa, a previous nunnery, is a destroyed sanctuary for these people to reflect their life experience, including the tremor of the war. Through sharing experiences, they reconstruct their self identity. I would like to focus on Kip's and Hana's reconstruction of identity by mutual understanding and the author's arrangement of the ending.
Firstly I would like to focus on the mutual understanding between Kip and Hana that contribute to their reconstructing identity. Their physical intimacy and spiritual reliance contrast to Katherine and Almasy's devouring and passionate love. There is a description of Hana's pouring milk, "Hana was pouring milk into her cup. As she finished she moved the lip of the jug over Kip's hand and continued pouring the milk over his brown hand and up his arm to his elbow and then stopped. He didn't move it away" (123). The action of pouring milk for him and on his body connotes nursing and Kip's not moving away is his acceptance. The roles of giver and receiver show their reciprocal healing and support. Besides, Hana and Kip seem to have the telepathy to read each other's thinking. "She watches Kip lean his head back against the wall and knows the neutral look on his face. She can read it" (178). It indicates that Hana can perceive Kip's thinking from his facial expression. "He had mapped her sadness more than any other. Just as she knows the strange path of love he has for his dangerous brother" (270). It demonstrates that Hana can immerse into Kip's mind and knows his thought. Their spiritual reliance and utopian love aid them to recognize the fragmentary of personal history of each other intertwined with the public history. Sharing the similar experience, they help each other to reconstruct identity.
Then I would like to discuss Kip's psychological alternation from self-sufficiency, agitation, isolation to final rejection. I think from Kip's education and his being a sapper of English army refer to the triumph of the imperial discourse rarefies and then dominates the colonized people. Kip's self-sufficiency seems a state of transcendence but I think in some way he unconsciously restricts his national and ethnic identity. The propaganda of British government attempts to unite the soldiers by its eulogy of celebrating the bravery and honor of sapper. "This was a Heroic Age of bomb disposal, a period of individual prowess, when
urgency and a lack of knowledge and equipment led to the taking of fantastic risks" (184). This kind of official message creates an illusionary image of eliminating the boundary of races and risking their lives for a holy goal-fighting for their own nation. "Although he is a man from Asia who has in these last years of war assumed English fathers, following their codes like a dutiful son" (217). It pinpoints the arbitrary relationship of father's authority-the empire and son's obedience-the colony. Contrast to what his skin tells him and what his dissident brother told him, Kip is satisfied with his autistic safety. "He was accustomed to his invisibility. In England he was ignored in the various barracks, and he came to prefer that. The self-sufficiency and privacy Hana saw in him later were caused not just by his being a sapper in the Italian campaign. It was as much a result of being the anonymous member of another race, a part of the invisible world. He had built up defenses of character against all that, trusting only those who befriended him" (197). It illustrates Kip's strong sense of self protection so he feels quite easy with anonymity which hints security for him. Actually this self-sufficient mind can be maintained until the bombs thrown to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, the spiritual balance between Hana and Kip is collapsed. The bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki trigger Kip's anger and despair. Since he show his duty and loyalty to the empire, the empire tricks him. He then remembers his brother's admonishment and considers the war as the empire's intrigue. "My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said. Never shake hands with them" (284). Kip's brother's warning exemplifies that the war is the European empires' intrigue. In this way, Kip returns to India and doesn't keep in contact with Hana. His insistence to cut off any connection with the white people is very dramatic and disturbing. According to Kip's personality and characteristics, I don't think he will over-react for this event. May assumption is that Ondaaatje intends to curve the traumatic experience of the colony during World War II. As a result, does Kip's rejection and withdrawn suggest his change from a person without boundary to drawing his own boundary? Or on the contrary, Kip has to thoroughly break off his relation with the western nation and culture in order to solidify his Sihk / Indian identity?
As for Hana, besides mutual understanding with Kip, I think writing and reading are the curing power of her trauma to reconstructing her identity from the state of depression to acceptance. Cutting hair is a symbolic ritual to farewell the past and to inaugurate the new period of life journey. From her reading to the English patient, she re-mesmerizes herself into the historical context. "She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams"(12). The passage depicts Hana's body intertexualizing the stories accumulated by words and sentences. When she reads more, she also notes something in the book, for instance, Hana writes a passage of Caravaggio in The Last of Mihicans. (61) Lastly, Hana writes to her step-mother, Clara and expresses that she is sick of Europe and she wants to go home. "One say after we heard the bombs were dropped in Japan, so it feels like the end of the world. . . . If we can rationalize this we can rationalize anything" (292). She now can has the empathy of Almasy's reflection about "the sadness of geography" (296). From her description of Patrik's death, Hana's reconstructing herself is accepting the fact that what has done cannot be undone. It contrasts to Kip's complete denial and rejection of the western.
To sum up, I think The English Patient presents the historiographical reconstruction after the war through Hana and Kip. Their traumatic experience and realization of sadness of geography-invasion and mapping territory make Kip and Hana have different kind of reconstruction. There is no better or worse consequence between the two, Ondaatje attempts to presents multiple possibilities of reconstructing identity by re-locating or re-connecting self into the historical and geographical context.