The English Patient Summary

Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient

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The English Patient Summary

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The English Patient is a 1992 novel by Michael Ontaatje which won both the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award. It was adapted into a 1996 film, which received nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director at the 69th Academy Awards.

The narrative structure of The English Patient moves continually between past and present, between the burned English patient’s memories from before his accident and current events. It also moves between each of the main characters’ points of view.

Hana is a young nurse, gardening in an Italian villa in 1945. The Germans left bombs and mines buried everywhere, and many nurses and patients have fled to safer places, but Hana stays. Her patient was found in the wreckage of a plane crash, and his whole body is burned beyond recognition. A Bedouin tribe found and cared for him, returning him to a British camp in 1944; he is very grateful. Hana assumes he is English and often reads to him. She also gardens and plays hopscotch. Sometimes she reads the book he carried with him, a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories.

One day, another man, Caravaggio, arrives at the villa. He has bandaged hands, and is an old friend of Hana’s father, Patrick. Caravaggio used to be a thief, years ago, in Canada. He put those skills to use in the war and worked for the British Intelligence in North Africa. The Germans caught him, tortured him, and cut off his thumbs, making his hands nearly useless. He is now addicted to morphine, although somewhat recovered from the torture he suffered. He often mourns the death of Hana’s father in the war.

Hana plays the piano, and two soldiers arrive. Kip is an Indian Sikh in the British army, and has come to clear the area of bombs. He wants to check the piano for booby-traps. He and the English patient get along well, and Kip becomes part of the family, though his job is dangerous. He and Hana become lovers.

The English patient reveals his name is Almasy. He spent years exploring the North African desert, observing and making maps. In 1936, an Oxford man who owned a plane, Geoffrey Clifton, and his wife, Katherine, joined him, and they got on well. Almasy fell in love with Katherine, and they began an affair, which Katherine finally broke off. After the affair ended, he was especially rude to her in public. Geoffrey somehow found out anyway.

Soon, World War II began, and Almasy was nearly killed along with Katherine and a distraught Geoffrey, who tried to crash his plane into him. Geoffrey died, Katherine was severely injured, but Almasy was unhurt. They were stranded in the desert and Almasy is forced to leave Katherine, covered by the parachute for warmth, to walk for four days to the nearest town. However, the British think that he is a spy and he cannot convince anyone to help him rescue Katherine.

Eventually he was released, but it was too late for Katherine. He worked for the Germans, helping their spies in Cairo, and when his truck broke down, he walked back to Katherine’s body. He put her body in a plane, but the plane malfunctioned and caught fire. Almasy parachuted to safety but was badly burned. This is when the Bedouins saved him.

Caravaggio is suspicious of the English patient’s heritage. He fills in the gaps in Almasy’s story. Geoffrey was a British Intelligence agent, and knew all about the affair. They knew Almasy had helped the Germans and planned to kill him. They lost him, and cannot recognize him anymore.

Kip’s brother always distrusted the west, but Kip went willingly enough to serve in the British army. He was trained as a bomb disposal officer under Lord Suffolk, a true English gentleman, and was welcomed into his family. Kip became quite skilled, but Lord Suffolk and the rest of his group were blown up while diffusing a bomb, and Kip left England to become a sapper in Italy.

Kip feels emotionally removed from everyone in his job as a sapper. When he met Hana, he used her as a way to connect to his humanity again. All of the residents of the Italian villa celebrate Hana’s twenty-first birthday together, and Kip becomes quite comfortable within his role as her lover. Soon it is August, however, and Kip hears disturbing news over the radio. There are reports of the atomic bomb that the United States of America dropped on Japan. Kip is enraged, and somehow cannot believe that a western country would ever be able to commit such an atrocity. He brandishes his gun, threatening to kill the English patient, whom he sees as a symbol of the West, but instead flees on his motorcycle. He doesn’t return. Years later, he has a family of his own and is a doctor in India. He is happy and fulfilled, but always wonders what happened to Hana.