From Film Studies Class
OSU, Spring 1998
The desert is vital to the narrative in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The desert is parallel to the characters and even embodies them symbolically—more specifically it embodies the characters’ romances and relationships. The desert metaphor can be broken down into three parts. There are the rocks that represent the stable soul, which is rooted firmly in place. Then you have the winds that are parallel to the path of life, which could be described as the life force. Finally, there are the shifting sands, which are the events of our lives. These sands are care carried by the life force, which carves and shapes the landscape around them.
The English Patient, Count László de Almásy, embodies the desert in all of its parts. The desert was once a great sea, full of life. Almásy also came to the desert full of life—a virtual sea of possibility. Then the desert began to change him and wipe out his previous identity ever so slowly. He travels to the desert to map it, but he is actually mapping his own soul. He feels at home in the desert and thus with himself. Katherine is one of the strong winds that carved away at him, shaping him into a new man. Their love affair changed their lives—their very identity—forever. The winds of passion quickly changed to the winds of death, bring up the theme of Eros and Thanatos—the intertwining of love and death. Almásy finds that love and death exists in his inner landscape. He realizes this when he tells his lover Katherine about Felhomaly. “The dusk of graves. With the connotation of intimacy there between the dead and the living.” (170) As he lay dying in the Italian Villa, the winds sweep him from his life to his afterlife, continuing the endless cycle. He becomes a harbinger or reminder of this cycle for Caravaggio, Kip and Hana.
Hana is one of the strong rocks that scatter the landscape, silent and still. Her young life is quickly shaped by the violent winds of war and death. The wind has torn away her protection, so she is quite vulnerable. There is a sense of pain, loss and grieving that emanates from her. Hana is feeling the isolation and vastness of the desert in her own soul. It is the presence of this English Patient, Caravaggio and Kip that allows her to go through a kind of rebirth. The winds have torn her down, but now they are reshaping her into a new woman. Her relationship with Kip is like an oasis in her desert. For a time the heat of passion takes away her thirst and restores her. Then the water of Kip no longer sustains her. She finds herself searching more for what Kip represents to her than Kip himself.
Kip is like the sand itself, drifting and shifting without ever really changing. He is carried by the life force from one place to another and has no roots or attachments. In Eastern Philosophy this is the ideal state for a person to obtain. Kip has found himself in a new situation in the Italian Villa, which he observes and accesses from a distance. This distance gives him a sense of harmony as described in the novel, “Everything is gathered by him as a part of an altering harmony.” (219) Kip is drawn to Hana to shape her in a different way—to soften her sharp edges. The wind that moves him is not violent, but quiet in reflective. It is the Imbat Wind.
Caravaggio is most like one of the many rocks in the desert, but he has been shaped by a very bitter wind known as the Samiel Wind. This man has always been a jagged and broken rock, but the winds of war have nearly made him crumble. When he encounters Hana, a different wind begins to shape him—the Datto Wind. The winds that had once been harsh, have now softened and are gentle. The need to care for and protect Hana has softened his own rough edges. Caravaggio lets go of himself a bit, the broken pieces of him being picked up by the wind and carried away. Those bits of him are now apart of the winds that affects those around him. He ties them together physically and metaphorically. The winds of passion, love and death are all flowing through him and around him. This affects his relationship not only to others, but with himself as well.
Almásy, like the desert itself, is the main character in the novel The English Patient. Hana and Caravaggio are two rocks standing in that vast desert—alone and yet connected. Finally, Kip is the ever-shifting sand that follows the life-force effortlessly. All of these poetic symbols create a landscape of the human soul that demonstrates the subtle changes within. Mapping the journey of spiritual growth is one that requires this kind of poetic imagery to get its point across, which Michael Ondaatje does beautifully.