Michael Ondaatje - The English Patient

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He opens the window and steps out onto the verandah. A dark, beautiful night. Then he climbs off it and swings onto the verandah one level below. Only now can he enter the room of Anna and her general. Nothing more than a perfume in their midst. Printless foot. Shadowless. The story he told someone’s child years ago about the person who searched for his shadow—as he is now looking for this image of himself on a piece of film.

In the room he is immediately aware of the beginnings of sexual movement. His hands within her clothing thrown onto chair backs, dropped upon the floor. He lies down and rolls across the carpet in order to feel anything hard like a camera, touching the skin of the room. He rolls in silence in the shape of fans, finding nothing. There is not even a grain of light.

He gets to his feet and sways his arms out slowly, touches a breast of marble. His hand moves along a stone hand—he understands the way the woman thinks now—off which the camera hangs with its sling. Then he hears the vehicle and simultaneously as he turns is seen by the woman in the sudden spray of car light.

Caravaggio watches Hana, who sits across from him looking into his eyes, trying to read him, trying to figure the flow of thought the way his wife used to do. He watches her sniffing him out, searching for the trace. He buries it and looks back at her, knowing his eyes are faultless, clear as any river, unimpeachable as a landscape. People, he knows, get lost in them, and he is able to hide well. But the girl watches him quizzically, tilting her head in a question as a dog would when spoken to in a tone or pitch that is not human. She sits across from him in front of the dark, blood-red walls, whose colour he doesn’t like, and in her black hair and with that look, slim, tanned olive from all the light in this country, she reminds him of his wife.

Nowadays he doesn’t think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weight of her wrist on his heart during the night.

He sits with his hands below the table, watching the girl eat. He still prefers to eat alone, though he always sits with Hana during meals. Vanity, he thinks. Mortal vanity. She has seen him from a window eating with his hands as he sits on one of the thirty-six steps by the chapel, not a fork or a knife in sight, as if he were learning to eat like someone from the East. In his greying stubble-beard, in his dark jacket, she sees the Italian finally in him. She notices this more and more.

He watches her darkness against the brown- and-red walls, her skin, her cropped dark hair. He had known her and her father in Toronto before the war. Then he had been a thief, a married man, slipped through his chosen world with a lazy confidence, brilliant in deceit against the rich, or charm towards his wife Giannetta or with this young daughter of his friend.

But now there is hardly a world around them and they are forced back on themselves. During these days in the hill town near Florence, indoors during the days of rain, daydreaming in the one soft chair in the kitchen or on the bed or on the roof, he has no plots to set in motion, is interested only in Hana. And it seems she has chained herself to the dying man upstairs.

During meals he sits opposite this girl and watches her eat.

Half a year earlier, from a window at the end of the long hall in Santa Chiara Hospital in Pisa, Hana had been able to see a white lion. It stood alone on top of the battlements, linked by colour to the white marble of the Duomo and the Camposanto, though its roughness and naive form seemed part of another era. Like some gift from the past that had to be accepted. Yet she accepted it most of all among the things surrounding this hospital. At midnight she would look through the window and know it stood within the curfew blackout and that it would emerge like her into the dawn shift. She would look up at five or five-thirty and then at six to see its silhouette and growing detail. Every night it was her sentinel while she moved among patients. Even through the shelling the army had left it there, much more concerned about the rest of the fabulous compound—with its mad logic of a tower leaning like a person in shell shock.

Their hospital buildings lay in old monastery grounds. The topiary carved for thousands of years by too careful monks was no longer bound within recognizable animal forms, and during the day nurses wheeled patients among the lost shapes. It seemed that only white stone remained permanent.

Nurses too became shell-shocked from the dying around them. Or from something as small as a letter. They would carry a severed arm down a hall, or swab at blood that never stopped, as if the wound were a well, and they began to believe in nothing, trusted nothing. They broke the way a man dismantling a mine broke the second his geography exploded. The way Hana broke in Santa Chiara Hospital when an official walked down the space between a hundred beds and gave her a letter that told her of the death of her father.

A white lion.

It was sometime after this that she had come across the English patient—someone who looked like a burned animal, taut and dark, a pool for her. And now, months later, he is her last patient in the Villa San Girolamo, their war over, both of them refusing to return with the others to the safety of the Pisa hospitals. All the coastal ports, such as Sorrento and Marina di Pisa, are now filled with North American and British troops waiting to be sent home. But she washed her uniform, folded it and returned it to the departing nurses. The war is not over everywhere, she was told. The war is over. This war is over. The war here. She was told it would be like desertion. This is not desertion. I will stay here. She was warned of the uncleared mines, lack of water and food. She came upstairs to the burned man, the English patient, and told him she would stay as well.

He said nothing, unable even to turn his head towards her, but his fingers slipped into her white hand, and when she bent forward to him he put his dark fingers into her hair and felt it cool within the valley of his fingers.

How old are you?


There was a duke, he said, who when he was dying wanted to be carried halfway up the tower in Pisa so he could die looking out into the middle distance.

A friend of my father’s wanted to die while Shanghai-dancing. I don’t know what it is. He had just heard of it himself.

What does your father do?

He is … he is in the war.

You’re in the war too.

She does not know anything about him. Even after a month or so of caring for him and allotting him the needles of morphine. There was shyness at first within both of them, made more evident by the fact that they were now alone. Then it was suddenly overcome. The patients and doctors and nurses and equipment and sheets and towels—all went back down the hill into Florence and then to Pisa. She had salted away codeine tablets, as well as the morphine. She watched the departures, the line of trucks. Good-bye, then. She waved from his window, bringing the shutters to a close.

   Behind the villa a rock wall rose higher than the house. To the west of the building was a long enclosed garden, and twenty miles away was the carpet of the city of Florence, which often disappeared under the mist of the valley. Rumour had it one of the generals living in the old Medici villa next door had eaten a nightingale.

The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil, had the look of a besieged fortress, the limbs of most of the statues blown off during the first days of shelling. There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms. She worked along the edges of them aware always of unexploded mines. In one soil-rich area beside the house she began to garden with a furious passion that could come only to someone who had grown up in a city. In spite of the burned earth, in spite of the lack of water. Someday there would be a bower of limes, rooms of green light.

Caravaggio came into the kitchen to find Hana sitting hunched over the table. He could not see her face or her arms tucked in under her body, only the naked back, the bare shoulders.

She was not still or asleep. With each shudder her head shook over the table.

Caravaggio stood there. Those who weep lose more energy than they lose during any other act. It was not yet dawn. Her face against the darkness of the table wood.

“Hana,” he said, and she stilled herself as if she could be camouflaged by stillness.


She began to moan so the sound would be a barrier between them, a river across which she could not be reached.

He was uncertain at first about touching her in her nakedness, said “Hana,” and then lay his bandaged hand on her shoulder. She did not stop shaking. The deepest sorrow, he thought. Where the only way to survive is to excavate everything.

She raised herself, her head down still, then stood up against him as if dragging herself away from the magnet of the table.

“Don’t touch me if you’re going to try and fuck me.”

The skin pale above her skirt, which was all she wore in this kitchen, as if she had risen from the bed, dressed partially and come out here, the cool air from the hills entering the kitchen doorway and cloaking her.

Her face was red and wet.


“Do you understand?”

“Why do you adore him so much?”

“I love him.”

“You don’t love him, you adore him.”

“Go away, Caravaggio. Please.”

“You’ve tied yourself to a corpse for some reason.”

“He is a saint. I think. A despairing saint. Are there such things? Our desire is to protect them.”

“He doesn’t even care!”

“I can love him.”

“A twenty-year-old who throws herself out of the world to love a ghost!”

Caravaggio paused. “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate. Let me tell you this. This is the thing I learned. If you take in someone else’s poison—thinking you can cure them by sharing it—you will instead store it within you. Those men in the desert were smarter than you. They assumed he could be useful. So they saved him, but when he was no longer useful they left him.”

“Leave me alone.”

   When she is solitary she will sit, aware of the nerve at her ankle, damp from the long grasses of the orchard. She peels a plum from the orchard that she has found and carried in the dark cotton pocket of her dress. When she is solitary she tries to imagine who might come along the old road under the green hood of the eighteen cypress trees.

As the Englishman wakes she bends over his body and places a third of the plum into his mouth. His open mouth holds it, like water, the jaw not moving. He looks as if he will cry from this pleasure. She can sense the plum being swallowed.

He brings his hand up and wipes from his lip the last dribble, which his tongue cannot reach, and puts his finger in his mouth to suck it. Let me tell you about plums, he says. When I was a boy …

After the first nights, after most of the beds had been burned for fuel against the cold, she had taken a dead man’s hammock and begun to use it. She would bang spikes into whatever walls she desired, whichever room she wanted to wake in, floating above all the filth and cordite and water on the floors, the rats that had started to appear coming down from the third storey. Each night she climbed into the khaki ghostline of hammock she had taken from a dead soldier, someone who had died under her care.

A pair of tennis shoes and a hammock. What she had taken from others in this war. She would wake under the slide of moonlight on the ceiling, wrapped in an old shirt she always slept in, her dress hanging on a nail by the door. There was more heat now, and she could sleep this way. Before, when it had been cold, they had had to burn things.

Her hammock and her shoes and her frock. She was secure in the miniature world she had built; the two other men seemed distant planets, each in his own sphere of memory and solitude. Caravaggio, who had been her father’s gregarious friend in Canada, in those days was capable of standing still and causing havoc within the caravan of women he seemed to give himself over to. He now lay in his darkness. He had been a thief who refused to work with men, because he did not trust them, who talked with men but who preferred talking to women and when he began talking to women was soon caught in the nets of relationship. When she would sneak home in the early hours of the morning she would find him asleep on her father’s armchair, exhausted from professional or personal robberies.

She thought about Caravaggio—some people you just had to embrace, in some way or another, had to bite into the muscle, to remain sane in their company. You needed to grab their hair and clutch it like a drowner so they would pull you into their midst. Otherwise they, walking casually down the street towards you, almost about to wave, would leap over a wall and be gone for months. As an uncle he had been a disappearer.

Caravaggio would disturb you by simply enfolding you in his arms, his wings. With him you were embraced by character. But now he lay in darkness, like her, in some outpost of the large house. So there was Caravaggio. And there was the desert Englishman.

Throughout the war, with all of her worst patients, she survived by keeping a coldness hidden in her role as nurse. I will survive this. I won’t fall apart at this. These were buried sentences all through her war, all through the towns they crept towards and through, Urbino, Anghiari, Monterchi, until they entered Florence and then went farther and finally reached the other sea near Pisa.

In the Pisa hospital she had seen the English patient for the first time. A man with no face. An ebony pool. All identification consumed in a fire. Parts of his burned body and face had been sprayed with tannic acid, that hardened into a protective shell over his raw skin. The area around his eyes was coated with a thick layer of gentian violet. There was nothing to recognize in him.

   Sometimes she collects several blankets and lies under them, enjoying them more for their weight than for the warmth they bring. And when moonlight slides onto the ceiling it wakes her, and she lies in the hammock, her mind skating. She finds rest as opposed to sleep the truly pleasurable state. If she were a writer she would collect her pencils and notebooks and favourite cat and write in bed. Strangers and lovers would never get past the locked door.

To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self.

Her legs move under the burden of military blankets. She swims in their wool as the English patient moved in his cloth placenta.

What she misses here is slow twilight, the sound of familiar trees. All through her youth in Toronto she learned to read the summer night. It was where she could be herself, lying in a bed, stepping onto a fire escape half asleep with a cat in her arms.

In her childhood her classroom had been Caravaggio. He had taught her the somersault. Now, with his hands always in his pockets, he just gestures with his shoulders. Who knew what country the war had made him live in. She herself had been trained at Women’s College Hospital and then sent overseas during the Sicilian invasion. That was in 1943. The First Canadian Infantry Division worked its way up Italy, and the destroyed bodies were fed back to the field hospitals like mud passed back by tunnellers in the dark. After the battle of Arezzo, when the first barrage of troops recoiled, she was surrounded day and night by their wounds. After three full days without rest, she finally lay down on the floor beside a mattress where someone lay dead, and slept for twelve hours, closing her eyes against the world around her.

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