October 8, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On The English Patient

Last week, a piece called “The Movie Assassin” made the rounds on social media, part personal essay on the struggles of being a movie reviewer, part analysis of our society’s cultural decline, all told through the lens of how much the author, Sarah Miller, disliked Anthony Minghella’s 1996 movie The English Patient and how she resented feeling pressured into writing a positive review of it. While I agree with Miller’s ultimate conclusion about being honest in what you write (as well as her tangential critiques of imperialism and neoliberalism), I do take issue with her reductive summation of The English Patient as a movie “about British people fucking in their colonies” and about “good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other.” Whatever one thinks of its sentimentality and its self-seriousness, the story at the heart of The English Patient, both in the book and the movie, is emphatically not a defense of British colonialism or a narrow depiction of white people—it is, in fact, a powerful indictment of nationalism and borders and one that advances a complex view of identity that our culture today could learn from. Moreover, I would argue that the sentimentality is actually necessary for such a story—because the vision at its core, of an “earth without maps,” is so fleeting and unattainable that the only way to capture it, in prose and on screen, is with all the overwrought pathos one can muster. Since reading Miller’s essay, I’ve rewatched the film and reread the novel, and I’ve found myself overwhelmed by the emotion of it all and can’t imagine such a story told any other way.

The novel opens in the Villa San Girolamo, the Italian nunnery that will come to be its primary setting, a bombed-out ruin full of broken statues and half-destroyed rooms, with staircases leading to nothing, abandoned gardens, a piano, a library open to the sky. At first, the villa is empty saved for Hana, a Canadian nurse, and the titular English Patient, a burned and dying man who we’ll later learn is not English at all but actually the Hungarian explorer Count László de Almásy. Soon, though, the two are joined by David Caravaggio, a Canadian thief working for the Allies, and Kirpal “Kip” Singh, a Sikh sapper who’s part of a British bomb disposal unit.

Over the course of the novel then, which is set in 1945 in the last months of the war, these four manage to create an unexpected utopia, and the villa becomes a space where national boundaries cease to exist—Hana and Kip fall in love, Caravaggio starts to heal from his trauma, and the English Patient recounts his own story in fractured memories, his pre-war life mapping the deserts of Libya, his time in Cairo with his friend Maddox and their fellow geographers, his doomed affair with the married Katherine Clifton. Michael Ondaatje renders the whole thing in beautiful prose, an immediate present tense of poetic fragments and short sentences dense with sensory detail, all of which gives the novel a timelessness and reinforces the idea that these four have managed to rise above the war and the national boundaries that divided them. But, of course, this utopia cannot last, and the novel ends with history resuming—Kip learns that two atomic bombs have been dropped on Japan, and after imagining the horror unleashed onto a fellow Asian country (“They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” he thinks) he suddenly becomes aware of his racial difference and feels he can never truly connect with these white Westerners and leaves the villa despite Hana’s protests. The novel ends years later, with Kip in India, married and with children, thinking with regret about Hana and the moments they shared. Thus, Ondaatje’s vision of a world transcending nationalism is all the more emotionally devastating because of how quickly it’s snatched away. The conclusion to Almásy’s story then, where he laments the death of Katherine and the forces that made it happen, takes on an even more tragic resonance:

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

No wonder the novel won the Man Booker in 1992 and the Golden Man Booker earlier this year.

While the movie maintains the novel’s style and central themes, it makes the romance between Almásy and Katherine its central focus, and instead of opening in the villa, it begins with a shot of the desert and Almásy’s plane flying over sand dunes before being shot down, engulfed in smoke and fire. The film then proceeds more linearly than the book, showing Hana meeting the English Patient, showing them arriving at the villa, and then using flashbacks to show how Almásy met Katherine and how they fell in love, with several added scenes between them in the desert and Cairo. The villa is still the timeless space it was in the book, but more time is spent in North Africa before the war, and a love story that in the book was a fragmented jumble we had to piece together becomes a dramatic and emotionally engaging narrative that we follow from its beginning to its tragic conclusion. The emotional climax of the movie, then, comes not from Kip learning about the atomic bomb but from Almásy returning to the Cave of Swimmers and carrying Katherine’s body out into the desert, while Hana reads Katherine’s last words, which she inscribed in his copy of Herodotus as she died, a variation of Almásy lament from the book:

We die, we die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we have hidden in, like this wretched cave. I want all this marked in my body. We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you will come and carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted—to walk in such a place with you, with friends, on earth without maps.

Despite how different they are, this scene in the film achieves the same tragic resonance as the emotional climax of the book, when Kip leaves the villa, since both speak to theme of borders and nationalism. Almásy had left an injured Katherine in the cave, promising to return with help—but the British in El Taj detained him because of his Hungarian name, suspecting him to be a German spy. By the time he escaped and returned, it was too late.

It seems wrong, then, to accuse the film of being “racist,” as Miller labels it, given that its thematic purpose is to challenge our world’s obsession with maps and nations. There is a justifiable argument, perhaps, to be made that both the book and the film whitewash the real Almásy, who during the war helped two German spies cross the desert into Cairo—although the book does address this and in doing so complicates our view of Almásy (in the movie, his actions are changed so that instead of helping the two spies himself, he simply gives the Germans maps to allow them to cross in exchange for gasoline—the movie still makes clear that this action has consequences, but it does downplay the extent of what the real Almásy did). Nevertheless, both the book and the film are obviously fictionalizing Almásy’s life and using him as a way to comment on nationalism more broadly. More importantly, it’s hard to justify calling either the book or the film “racist” considering the prominent place both have for Kip. The film even adds a scene in which Kip challenges Almásy’s reading of Kipling and offers what is essentially a post-colonial rebuttal.

In a chapter in Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, a book that reflects on influence of melancholy on the left, historian Enzo Traverso discuses Walter Benjamin’s view on the relationship between the past and the present:

According to Benjamin, a fundamental feature of modernity lay in the exhaustion of transmissible experience (Erfahrung) and the primacy of lived, ephemeral, fragmentary experience (Erlebnis). The past ceased to live in the present—where it subsisted as “a secularized relic”—because it could not be appropriated through a process of spontaneous and almost natural transmission from one generation to another . . . the past needed a trigger or a fuse in order to be reactivated.

It’s a stretch, I know, but having recently read Traverso’s book, I was thinking of this passage as I was reflecting on why so many people (not just Miller but also the writers of Seinfeld) didn’t connect with The English Patient. Was it because in the 1990s, that strange era when we believed history had ended, the experience of WWII “ceased to live in the present?” Did so many of us dislike The English Patient because we no longer saw its depiction of history as a possible reality and thus felt its sentimentality to be something excessive rather than the only justified style one could employ to describe such an awful tragedy? But, of course, this is also the power of a work of historical fiction like The English Patient—to remind us of the experiences of a past generation, to bring the past back into the present. It’s the trigger or fuse that Traverso describes.

In his 1940 essay on the concept of history, Benjamin writes the following: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Today we live in a moment of danger, with Nazis back on the streets, increasing economic inequality, and a President with fascist tendencies. In a such a moment then, it’s worth revisiting The English Patient, to remind us of past tragedy, and to give us a vision of how to transcend it.