The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
Chapter 2

A new character emerges - a man with bandaged hands who has been in a military hospital in Rome for more than four months. While in this military hospital, he tells the doctors and nurses nothing about himself, other than his serial number, which confirms that he is part of the Allies and not a member of the German army. Walking past a group of doctors, he hears Hana’s name in their conversation and asks them where he can find her. They tell him that she is with an English patient in an old nunnery that was converted to a hospital after the Allies laid seige. The nurse and the patient refused to leave. The man with the bandaged hands leaves to find her.

The point of view switches back to Hana’s - she is surprised, even shocked, by the appearance of the man with bandaged hands, a man she once knew, who had come all this way by train and walked four miles uphill in order to find her. He occupies a bedroom and makes himself at home. Hana tells him that she hopes he didn’t come to persuade her to leave. She says that if he’s going to stay they will need more food - she has vegetables and beans, but she’ll need chickens to feed three people. Caravaggio - the man - responds that he’s "lost his nerve," because killing chickens reminds him of his recent misfortune. He was caught by the Germans and they maimed his hands, nearly chopping them both off.

Caravaggio remembers his life as a spy for the Allies, and how they sent him to a German function to steal documents from one of the house’s rooms. During the course of the party a woman took a photograph of him, and knowing it might lead to him being found out, he stole into the woman’s room at night, while she was having sex, and managed to take back the camera. The woman saw him, but he mimed cutting his throat to let her know that she could not tell on him unless she was willing to risk her own life.

Caravaggio watches Hana eat, but does not eat in front of her as he is embarrassed by the fact that he cannot use a fork or knife anymore. He is taken with Hana, but he realizes she "has chained herself to the dying man upstairs." One day, he finds her sobbing and tells her that she’s chained herself to a corpse, despite her protests of love for the burned man. Caravaggio tells her that she’s ruining her young life, caring for a ghost.

Hana remembers how she came to be a nurse. First she flashes back to the Caravaggio who embraced her as a youth, the gregarious thief who was always such a character. Back then she was warmer, but now Hana thinks of herself as cold, hardened by her years treating dying patients. When she first saw the English patient, she was taken with him - he had no face, just an ebony pool of charred skin hardened into a protective shell. She remembers that there was nothing to recognize about him. It is this lack of recognizing anything that she’s attracted to. When she first became a nurse, she cut off her hair so it wouldn’t get in the way, never looked herself in mirrors, and called everyone "Buddy" so that she wouldn’t have to use - and then stop using - any patient’s name.

Caravaggio and Hana go for a walk in the garden. Caravaggio allows her to loosen the bandages and change them, and Hana sees that they removed both of his thumbs. He tells her a nurse had to do it - that they called in a woman to do it. Hana tells them they stopped torturing him - thus saving his hands - because the Allies were coming. They must have heard the bombing from outside that signaled that the Germans were getting out of the city.

Outside it is raining, and Hana plays the piano in the library. She looks up in a flash of lightning, and sees that there are two men in the room. Two soldiers - a Sikh and another man, both holding wet guns. She continues to play until she is finished, and then nods towards them. When Caravaggio returns, he finds Hana and the two soldiers in the kitchen making sandwiches.


Hana isn’t actually named until this chapter, through the eyes of Caravaggio. Recall that in the villa, she is nameless - a woman shirking adulthood in order to avoid living life, cowering inside her own body, attached to a man who is faceless, nameless, without a future. As Caravaggio notes, she has chained herself to a dying man in order to expedite her own spiritual death. She has lost interest in life. At this point, we’re not quite sure what prompted such a severe disillusionment, but her history as a nurse certainly gives us some idea. Working in a war hospital, she could never make deep connections - she learned not to use names, as soon enough the patient would be dead. When her father died, suddenly it became clear that death was the predominant theme of her life. And now she seems to be waiting for it, even encouraging it’s arrival.

Caravaggio is as slippery a character as Hana. On a simple narrative level, he is the foil to the English patient - a living, breathing man in love with her. He realizes that she is emotionally unavailable, but presses her to let go of the Englishman - something that she is clearly not ready to do. When the soldiers show up at the end of the chapter, we see that Hannah is starting to become surrounded by life - and the question becomes whether she will blossom out of her cocoon of death or stay sheltered.

Caravaggio’s story reminds us of the terrors of war. In his harrowing story of being caught by the Germans, the detail of the nurse who was brought out to cut off his hands is perhaps the most chilling. There is a clinicalness to war - an antiseptic feeling that permeates the entire book. Notice how much time Ondaatje spends describing smells - the odors of war as a technique for making the imagery richer and more effective. Clearly, Caravaggio still suffers from shock even though he’s somewhat physically recovered. He tries to understand how he escaped even more torture, but Hana affirms the pragmatic reason for his survival: that the Germans simply had to leave.

When Caravaggio finds Hana sobbing, she seems to imply that it is because she loves a man who cannot love her back - the dying patient - but we get the sense that she is in truth searching for the love of her father. Somehow, this charred patient, unrecognizable, without a face, has become a surface upon which Hana projects her father, praying for reciprocal love. Caravaggio insists she cannot love him, but Hana responds, "Leave me alone," as if she wants nothing more than to be in this house of dreams where she can fantasize about filling in incomplete parts of herself.

The appearance of the soldiers is an interesting development, if only becomes it happens in such a dreamlike manner. Hana is playing piano in the thunder and lightning when suddenly these men appear carrying guns - even more reminders of death and war in this relic of a house. For a moment, we think it is a fantasy, until we see through Caravaggio that Hana has indeed welcomed these men and is making food in the kitchen with them, as if accepting of the fact that she can no longer be alone in the ruins. Perhaps now, after all this time, she must allow the house, her life, and her soul to be rebuilt.

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