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The English Patient

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The English Patient

The English Patient
First edition cover
Author Michael Ondaatje
Cover artist Cecil Beaton
Country Canada
Language English
Genre Historiographic metafiction
Publisher McClelland and Stewart
Publication date
September 1992
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 320 pp
OCLC 26257641

The English Patient is a 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje. The book follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The four main characters are: an unrecognisably-burned man—the titular patient, presumed to be English; his Canadian Army nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief. The story occurs during the North African Campaign and centres on the incremental revelations of the patient's actions prior to his injuries, and the emotional effects of these revelations on the other characters.


The novel's historical backdrop is the North African/Italian Campaigns of World War II. Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, cares for the severely burned "English Patient" in the bomb-damaged Villa San Girolamo, an Italian monastery. His only possession is a well worn and heavily annotated copy of Herodotus' histories that has survived the fiery parachute drop.[1] The reading aloud of the book constantly brings about, in great detail, recollections of his desert explorations. Yet he is unable to recall his own name. Instead, he chooses to maintain the assumption by others that he is an Englishman based on the sound of his voice. The patient is in fact László de Almásy, a Hungarian Count and desert explorer, one of the many members of a British cartography group.

Caravaggio is an Italian-Canadian in the British foreign intelligence service since the late 1930s, during which he befriended Hana's father before the latter died in the war. He learns that Hana is at the villa caring for a patient. He had remained in North Africa to spy when the German forces gain control and then transferred to Italy. He eventually gets caught, interrogated, and tortured; they even cut off his thumbs.[2] Caravaggio bears physical and psychological scars from which he seeks vengeance with his painful war experience.

Two British soldiers yell at Hana to stop her playing a piano since the Germans often booby-trapped them. One of the soldiers, Kip, is an Indian Sikh that is a trained sapper, specializing in bomb and ordnance disposal. Kip decides to stay at the villa to attempt to rid the villa of its dangers. Kip and the English patient immediately become friends.

The English patient, sedated by morphine, begins to reveal everything: he falls in love with the Englishwoman Katharine Clifton who, with her husband Geoffrey, accompanies Almásy's desert exploration team. Almásy is mesmerized by Katharine's voice as she reads Herodotus' histories out loud by the campfire.[3] They soon begin a very intense affair, but she cuts it short, claiming that Geoffrey would go mad if he were to discover them.

Geoffrey offers to return Almásy to Cairo on his plane since the expedition will break camp with the coming of war. Almásy is unaware that Katharine is aboard the plane when Geoffrey aims it at Almásy, misses him and it crashes into the ground. Geoffrey is killed outright in the crash, Katharine is injured internally and Almásy leaves her in the Cave of Swimmers. Caravaggio tells him that British Intelligence knew about the affair. Almásy takes a three day walk to British-controlled El Taj for help. When he arrives there, Almásy is detained as a spy based on his name, despite telling them about Katharine's predicament. He later guides German spies across the desert into Cairo. Almásy retrieve Katharine's body from the Cave and while flying back the rotted plane leaks oil onto him and both catch fire. He parachutes from the plane and is found by the Bedouin.



Count Ladislaus de Almásy is the titlular character who comes under Hana's care in Italy after being unrecognizably burned in Africa. Although is Hungarian by birth, because he has lived without government identification or many verifiable long-term interactions, his accent prompts the authorities around him to perceive an English affiliation and so refer to him as the English Patient. As such, Almásy serves as a blank canvas onto which the other characters project their experience during this time in Italy. For example, Hana treats him tenderly to redeem herself for not being by the side of her father when he as stricken by flames and died in a similar physical condition. She tries to comfort the English Patient in the way that she was unable to comfort her own father.

The rejection of a nationalistic identity enables Almásy to rationalize his actions with his associates (socializing with and mapping for the British before the war and then using that information to smuggle German spies across northern Africa) as potentially duplicitous behavior that can be forgiven as only hearsay. Almásy is portrayed in a sympathetic light, partly because Almásy tells his own story, but also because he always adheres to his own moral code.

Almásy is also at the centre of one of the novel's love stories. He is involved in an adulterous relationship with Katharine Clifton, which eventually leads to her death and the death of her husband, Geoffrey Clifton. Katharine is the figure who leads Almásy to sensuality. He falls in love with her voice as she reads Herodotus. Sensuality—in both the sexual and observational senses—is a major theme to the novel.

The character is loosely based on László Almásy, a well-known desert explorer in 1930s Egypt, and who helped the German side in World War II. Almásy did not suffer burns or die in Italy, but survived the war and lived until 1951.


Hana is a twenty year old Canadian Army nurse. Hana is torn between her youth and her maturity. In a sense, she has lost her childhood too early. Hana, being a good nurse, quickly learns that she cannot become emotionally attached to her patients. She calls them all "buddy,"[4] and immediately detaches from them once they die. Her lover, a Canadian officer, is killed. It is because of this that Hana comes to believe that she is cursed and that all of those around her are doomed to die.

In contrast to this detachment, upon hearing of her father's death Hana has an emotional breakdown. She then puts all of her energy into caring for the English Patient. She washes his wounds and provides him with morphine. When the hospital is abandoned, Hana refuses to leave and instead stays with her patient. She sees Almásy as saintlike and falls in love with his pure nature.[5]

The character of Hana is entirely paradoxical. She is mature beyond her years, but she still clings to childlike practices. She plays hopscotch in the villa and sees the English Patient as a noble hero who is suffering. She projects her own romanticized images onto the blank slate of the English Patient, forming a sort of fairytale existence for herself. In addition to her relationship with Almásy, Hana also forms a strong relationship with Kip during his stay at the villa.


Triumph 3HW 350cc motorcycle used by Kip in the novel

Kirpal (Kip) Singh is an Indian Sikh who has volunteered with the British military for sapper bomb disposal training under the Lord Suffolk. This act of patriotism is not shared by his Indian nationalist brother; the skepticism of his unit's "white" peers discourages an air of community building for Kip.

The Lord Suffolk, an eccentric English nobleman, has developed techniques in this highly dangerous discipline to dismantle the complicated unexploded bombs. Kip gains an sense of belonging in a community when he is welcomed into the Suffolk household. Lord Suffolk and his sapper team are killed while attempting to dismantle a new type of bomb. The loss to Kip encourages his emotional withdrawal to become more pronounced. It should be noted that Charles Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk, was an actual historical person. He did participate in the dismantling of bombs, and was subsequently killed while engaged in the practice.

Kip is transferred to another unit in Italy where he and his partner hear the playing of a piano. As they enter the villa Hana is told to stop as the Germans sabotaged many. Kip stays on at the villa to clear any unexploded bombs or mines or other booby-traps that remain. Kip gains a sense of community and confidence when he becomes Hana's lover. The interactions of the Westerner's at the villa is seen by Kip a group that disregards national origins. They get together and celebrate Hana's 21st birthday, a symbol of their friendship and Kip's acceptance. However, when learning of the Nuclear bombing of Hiroshima Kip is thoroughly shocked. He immediately leaves, unable to believe that Westerners would do such a thing. Kip goes back to India and never returns, though he never stops recalling the effect of Hana in his life.

David Caravaggio

David Caravaggio is a Canadian thief whose profession is legitimized by the war, as the Allies needed crafty people to steal Axis documents. He is a long-time friend of Hana's father and becomes known as is referred to as "the man with bandaged hands" when he arrives at the villa; the bandages cover his severed thumbs the result of an Italian interrogation in Florence. He recalls that Ranuccio Tommasoni ordered the interrogation tactic. This is a reference to a man by the same name who was murdered by the historical Caravaggio in 1606.[6] The mental and physical outcome of the torture is that Caravaggio has "lost his nerve"[7] and ability to steal. Hana remembers him as a very human thief. He would always get distracted by the human element in a job. For instance, if an advent calendar was on the wrong day, he would fix it. She also has deep feelings of love for Caravaggio. It is debated if this love is romantic or simply familial. At times, Caravaggio seems to display a romantic love towards Hana. Caravaggio[8] and Almásy share a morphine addiction. Caravaggio works this to his advantage to confirm his suspicion that Almásy is not English.

Katharine Clifton

Katharine is the recently wedded wife of Geoffrey Clifton, whom she met at Oxford University. The day after their wedding, she and Geoffrey flew to join Almásy's expedition. She entertains the camp in the evening by reading aloud from Almásy's copy of Heroditus' Histories, after which she and Almásy begin an affair. Geoffrey discovers the affair after she had already ended it, wracked with guilt. Geoffrey attempts to kill all three of them by crashing his plane, but after only Geoffrey is killed in the crash, Katharine admits that she always loved Almásy.

Geoffrey Clifton

Geoffrey is Katharine's cuckolded husband, on a secret mission for the British government to make detailed aerial maps of North Africa; his joining the Almásy expedition is only a ruse. The plane he claims to be his own was appropriated by the Crown, and he leaves his wife with the other expedition members while on his mission, leading to her infidelity.


The novel won the 1992 Booker Prize[9] and the 1992 Governor General's Award.[10]

Film adaptation

The book was adapted into a 1996 film by Anthony Minghella, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, and Juliette Binoche. The film received nine Academy Awards—including Best Picture and Director—at the 69th Academy Awards.[11]


  1. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 16.
  2. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 54.
  3. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 233.
  4. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 51.
  5. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 45.
  6. ^ Don Meredith. Varieties of Darkness: The World of the English Patient. University Press of America, 2011. ISBN 9780761857235. p. 12.
  7. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 33.
  8. ^ Ondaatje 1993, p. 166.
  9. ^ "2 Tie For Booker Prize". The Seattle Times. 18 Oct 1992. p. K6. 
  10. ^ "FIRST COLUMN Ottawa's arts policies assailed". The Globe and Mail (Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.). 1 Dec 1992. p. A1. 
  11. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (25 Mar 1997). English Patient' Dominates Oscars With Nine, Including Best Picture"'". New York Times. Retrieved 11 Nov 2014. 

External links

  • The English PatientMichael Ondaatje discusses on the BBC
  • The writings of László Almásy, available in English translation.
Preceded by
The Famished Road
Booker Prize recipient
with Sacred Hunger
Succeeded by
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Preceded by
Such a Long Journey
Governor General's Award for English language fiction recipient
Succeeded by
The Stone Diaries
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