The English Patient

Ondaatje, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
Secondary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: Feb-20-2001
  • Last revised: Dec-06-2006


In the final year of World War II, in a bomb-damaged villa in the hills north of Florence, four characters seek shelter and in their various ways attempt to undo the damage of the war. Kip, the Indian munitions expert, by day disarms unexploded mines and bombs. The title character, badly burned all over his body when his plane crashed in the desert, lies in a bed, morphine deadening his pain and loosening his memory, reminiscing about a love affair and his career in military intelligence as a desert expert.

The young Canadian nurse Hana, emotionally shut down as the result of her work in the war and the death of her lover, has refused to withdraw with her unit and lovingly tends to the English patient and develops an intimate relation with Kip. Caravaggio, a friend of Hana's parents and with an ambiguous interest in her, dips into Hana's supply of morphine and uses his intelligence skills to steal things for the group and also to probe into the mystery of the history and identity of the "English" patient. The novel ends shortly after radio news of the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki drives Kip away from the company of the companions he sees with angry irony as part of a destructive "Western wisdom" (p. 284).


This beautifully and lyrically written novel is at its heart a narrative poem in praise of intimacy and a complaint about the barriers that work against it. All the characters have been deeply wounded by a war based on national divisions, and the patient, the most obviously wounded, has lost his lover to a combination of personal and national jealousies. In the present tense of the narrative, the patient's wounds and his pain are the central exhibit of the novel--saying, in effect, this is the result of dividing things.

Hana's deep caring is given without knowledge of the identity of the wounded man, who, it turns out, has, like many a spy, subverted the divisiveness of nationality and patriotism by working both sides in the war. The patient's love of the desert adds resonance to this theme, the desert being to him the place that defies national boundaries and allows those it attracts "to be their best selves, unconscious of ancestry" (p. 246).


First published: 1992


McClelland & Stewart

Place Published




Secondary Source