Alterity and History in Micheal Ondaatje’s "The English Patient"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 History
2.1 Historical Background of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
2.2 Representation of Recording of History in The English Patient

3 Alterity
3.1 Definition
3.2 Alterity in the Case of Kip
3.3 Alterity in the Case of the English Patient
3.4 Alterity in the Novel’s Intertexts

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the notions of alterity and history play an important and interconnected role. It is set in the last days of World War II and is full of historical hints. The characters in the novel spend the last days of the war in a villa in Italy. Hana, the Canadian nurse, and her patient, whose identity is unknown at first as he is deformed after a plane crash, form an alternative community. Caravaggio, who worked for British Intelligence in North Africa, and Kip, an Indian Sikh and sapper in the British army, are the other two members of this community. The author himself stated in the acknowledgements that “characters who appear are fictional, as are some of the events and journeys” (322). Now the question arises, to which extent these characters and events are based on “true” historical facts. But parallel with this the question of “historical truth” is raised. Hence, this paper will discuss in which way and why Ondaatje fictionalised historical material. Furthermore, the novel deals with the way history is written and shows through its fragmented style of narration the various ways history is recorded and the problems of “historical truth” as a universal concept.

Strongly connected with Ondaatje’s treatment of history is the notion of the Other in the novel. To understand the way alterity is used it is necessary to give a short definition of the term and to outline its relevance in literary theories. The notion of alterity is concerned with the definition of identity in contrast to the Other. In The English Patient, the East as the Other and the Western treatment of this concept of Otherness are represented, on the one hand, by the various characters in the novel as they try to reconstruct their identity by depicting the Other. This will be shown especially in the case of the English Patient and Kip. On the other hand, the notion of alterity can be found in the novel’s intertexts which illustrate how the concept of Otherness was treated by authors and historians and in which way the characters in the novel are dealing with it.

2 History

History is depicted from many different perspectives in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. The setting of the novel in the last days of World War II already creates certain expectations raised by pre-existing historical knowledge of the reader. Furthermore, the novel is full of historical hints. Hence, it is necessary to analyse to which extend and in which way Ondaatje constructs history discursively. He also deals with the way history is recorded and the problems arising through this.

2.1 Historical Background of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient

In Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the historical background plays an important role. As it is set during the Second World War, a period of time which is still very influential today, the reader becomes interested in the reliability of the historical facts presented. Some might be recalled from history lessons while others are just fiction. In addition, some mayor facts are left out completely of the novel. Rather than the analysis of what is true and what is not, it is interesting to find out in which way Ondaatje uses history and historical knowledge of the readers.

Especially, the existence of the “real” Almásy was subject to scientific research. Tötösy de Zepetnek made an explicit and intensive research on the historical background of the character. He found out that there was really a Hungarian Count Lászlo Ede Almásy de Zsadány de Törökszentmiklós, living in times of the Second World War. He was supposed to be involved with Rommel in this war which is a parallel to the character of the English Patient, who might have been a spy for the Germans. There is also evidence that there was a Lady Clayton East Clayton, who died in a plane crash in this period of time (Tötösy de Zepetnek 2005: 117-122). The parallels to the English Patient in the novel are remarkable, but Ondaatje stated in a letter to Tötösy de Zepetnek that he did not know about this and calls his attention misplaced (Tötösy de Zepetnek 2005: 123). Furthermore, he states that human emotions are discovered in the story and that it is not supposed to be a history book (Tötösy de Zepetnek 2005: 125). In fact, the book is not to be read as a history book in which facts have to be proved wrong or right, but Ondaatje “personalises historical moments, asserts a timeless view of history” (Kella 2000: 84). This personalisation presents the atrocities the characters in the novel had to suffer in war. The Canadian nurse Hana, for example, had a miscarriage and lost the father of her unborn child who was a soldier she used to care of during the in war. She presents through her perspective the experiences and atrocities nurses had to face when caring for wounded soldiers. Furthermore, she embodies how these experiences quickly change a young and jaunty woman into a serious and thoughtful woman. Hana herself is aware of these changes, but can not face them. She cuts of her hair and does not look into mirrors anymore. When Caravaggio tells a story about her as sixteen-year-old girl, she answers: “I wonder what happened to her” (34). Caravaggio embodies the horror spies had to suffer. He lost his thumbs and becomes addicted to morphine. These are injustice and trauma on a personal level, but it also focuses on the collective experiences of historical oppression (Kella 2000: 238). By presenting these traumatised characters, Ondaatje shows which impact history has on individuals and the atrocities of war are indirectly covered. They are not directly mentioned, as facts in history book are, but, as it can be seen, these experiences of history can be individually different. The novels intention is not write an accurate history of the Second World War in North Africa and Italy, but to present a human view on war (Pesch 1998a: 103).

In the acknowledgements, Ondaatje presents the historical research he has done to write this book and which sources he included directly through quotation. For example, he starts the novel with an excerpt from the minutes of a meeting from the Geographical Society of London and quotes passages from Major A.B. Hartley’s Unexploded Bomb. Some of these sources such as the Unexploded Bomb are taken out of historical context while others like Kipling’s Kim are fiction. He included a lot of this background information to establish a connection to the historical past. Ondaatje refers to many dates, places and battles in his novel. Mixing fictional and non-fictional material reminds the reader of the subjectivity of writing history and that interpretations are influenced by traditions and culture (Sadashige 1998: 243).

Ondaatje has also been criticised because he left out important facts regarding this time and region, such as the atrocities of the Germans against Italian civilians (Pesch 1998a: 104). The marginalisation of the Japanese-Indian conflict, which is only mentioned casually by Kip, was a point of critique (Kella 2000: 85). When Kip talks about the political situation in Asia, he only says: “Japan is a part of Asia, I say, and the Sikhs have been brutalised by the Japanese in Malaya.” (230). There is no further comment on this statement in the novel. The mayor points of criticism are too little accuracy, complexity and an unbalance of atrocities in the representation of the Second World War. These might be reasonable concerning a history book, but The English Patient is not even pretending to be a history book, but a piece of fiction (Pesch 1998a: 104). Ondaatje definitely requests the reader to have historical knowledge of that time, but he avoids the limitations of historical writing and expectations of historical truth thorough his transformation of historical material and his fragmented style of narration (Saklofske 2005: 73). The book is written for a contemporary reader who knows about the atrocities of the Second World War. Hence, the explosions of the atomic bombs in the end evoke a disrupting effect that can only be found among postnuclear readers. Kip’s reaction in the novel to the explosion seems exaggerated keeping in mind that he just heard two bombs exploded in Japan. Although he is a specialist, he could not have known about huge devastation and toxicity of the bombs (Sadashige 1998: 245). Ondaatje crosses boundaries of fiction and time through this event and Kip’s reaction towards it (Iowry 234-235). The novel shows the effects certain events in history have on the consciousness of the reader and demands the duty to remember.

2.2 Representation of Recording of History in The English Patient

The novel is also addressing the problems of writing of history and the recording of what is true and what is not. Parallel with this, it is questioned if there is a universal truth, or to state it more directly, if the truth is determined by the point of view. Through the fragmented style of narration, it is emphasised that truth is subjective as it depends on the point of view of the character. The characters in the novel are reconstructing their personal histories and put emphasis on different aspects of their lives. The English Patient focuses on his relationship to Katherine and their time together when talking about his life. He is depicted from a very positive side as a sensitive, emotional and poetic man in these stories. When Caravaggio sets him under alcohol and morphine to find out about his identity, a different picture of him is created. He starts to talk in third person about Almásy, which is his real identity, and Caravaggio finds out that he has been a spy for the Germans. Therefore, the questions arises which picture of him is true. The pictures contradict each other which leads to the question to which extent they are built on lies. As there is no reliable master narrative, but many voices that might be unreliable, the reader does not know. Caravaggio and the English Patient have been spies in the war and when he talks about Almásy, he is influenced by morphine and alcohol (Pesch 1998b: 122). Hence, their narrations have to be questioned. This can be transferred to the writing of history books. It is requested that they are objective and present universal truth, but as history is always recorded from a certain point of view, this becomes a problematic demand.

The Histories by Herodotus, which is written from a certain perspective, shows the problems arising through subjectivity. The English Patient uses The Histories as a diary and adds his own notes, drawings and pieces of paper to the book. Herodotus’ book is a multi-generic or hybrid work and situates the rise of Athenian imperialism within the broader history of the Greco-Persian conflict. The rise and fall of political regimes are depicted as well as ethnographical and geographical features. On the one hand, Herodotus is regarded as the father of history and the first historian. On the other hand, he is suspected to have been a liar and that his reports are of little accuracy. In these respects, Herodotus and the English Patient show a lot of parallels. The Histories serves as a mirror image of the life of the English Patient (Sadashige 1998: 248). The book establishes a connection between Herodotus and the English Patient. The book is integrated in his life and he adds his stories to the book. Hana describes it as “the book he brought with him through the fire – a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting und gluing in pages from other books or writing his own observations – so they all are cradled within the text of Herodotus” (17). The English Patient used the book for his geographical work and changed maps or facts he proved wrong in his own research and added personal notes. Through this personalisation of the book, his own history can be reconstructed (Nadel 2003: 24). The textual and subjective nature of history is exemplified by Ondaatje through the English Patient’s copy of The Histories. The personal history of Almásy is interwoven with Herodotus’ The Histories and the other way around (Sadashige 1998: 244). When Katherine reads the story of Candaules and his queen, the English Patient considers this story as a reflection the relationship between herself, her husband and him.

Knowing that eventually I will become her lover, just as Gyges will be the queen’s lover and murderer of Candaules. I would often open Herodotus for a clue to geography. But Katherine had done that as a window to her life. […] I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband. Perhaps she was just reading to him. Perhaps there was no ulterior motive in the selection except for themselves. It was simply a story that had jarred her in this situation. But a path suddenly revealed itself in real life. (247)

History of the English Patient proceeds through his personalised version of Histories, in this way, Ondaatje provides the reader to enter the process of recording and preserving of history (Saklofke 2005: 81). Hana also uses this way of recording history; she takes books from the library in the villa and writes down parts of history of their alternative community in free spaces.

Methods of recording and the problems arising when history is constructed with the help of these sources are especially shown through mapping. The process of mapping leads to a situation where one nation has power over the other. Furthermore, it divides, as it is a form of recording of history, nations with written history and unwritten history. The new space is determined by the coloniser’s writings of history (Nadel 2003: 21). The value of mapping and its importance for power is pointed out directly by Madox when he states that the possession of the desert means the possession of North Africa because “all of Europe were fighting their wars in North Africa” (21). This establishes the connection between mapping, hence writing of history, and colonising. The tendency to divide up the dark continent, controlling and using it is presented thorough the Geographical Society (Nadel 2003: 27). But also other methods of recording are presented. The scars and tracks on the body of the English Patient or Caravaggio’s cut of thumbs are marks of history (Nadel 2003: 31). These can be interpreted and regarded as sources of personal history. But these interpretations of sources are always subjective and can not be claimed to be absolute truth. The Cave of Swimmers, for example, received its name because the geographers interpreted the drawings to be swimmers, but this labelling is influenced by the western belief. The English Patient believes in these different sources of history, especially in the authority of books. He states that he is “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.” (19). On the other hand, the authority of books is continuously questioned, as the English Patient modifies facts in The Histories. On other example of this is the behaviour of Lord Suffolk, who is doing research on the authenticity of novel Lorna Doone in a geographical and historical context (197). Hence, Ondaatje questions and deconstructs the concept of ultimate truth.



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University of Cologne
Alterity History Micheal Ondaatje’s English Patient Contemporary Canadian Novel



Title: Alterity and History in Micheal Ondaatje’s "The English Patient"