The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
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Chapter 5

Hana injects the patient with morphine, and we continue listening to his memories. He returns to 1936, Cairo, when he still was subsumed with thoughts of Katharine. On an expedition, he asked his friend Madox the name of the hollow at the base of a woman’s neck. Madox told him to pull himself together.

Caravaggio tells Hana that he doubts the English patient is actually English. Instead, he believes the patient is a man named Almasy who worked for the Germans during the war. In the 1930s, Almasy had been one of the great desert explorers - a man who knew deserts and dialects, and went on a search for Zerzura, the lost oasis. When the war broke out, he joined the Germans, became a guide for the spies, and took them across Cairo. Hana brushes off this suggestion, still believing that the English patient is definitely English, but Caravaggio points to an incident a few nights ago when the patient offered a few interesting names while they were trying to name the villa dog: Cicero, Zerzura, Delilah. "Cicero," says Caravaggio, was a code name for a spy.

Caravaggio himself is a morphine addict, and thus knows that an excess of morphine will allow him to create a Brompton cocktail, or a sort of truth serum, for the English patient. He wants to find out once and for all whether the man is Almasy, but Hana says that the war is over and that it doesn’t matter. Caravaggio persists, manages to inject the patient with more morphine and alcohol, and begins to ask him questions.

Before he crashed in the desert, the English patient tells Caravaggio he was leaving Gilf Kebir in 1943. His truck had exploded, likely sabotaged by Bedouin spies from one of the armies, and he went in search of a plane that he knew was buried in the desert. After four nights, he found the plane near a place called Ain Dua. He went inside a cave called the Cave of Swimmers, where he had left Katharine’s body wrapped in parachute material. He had promised to return to her. He approached her naked, and ultimately made love to her body. He dressed, carried her into the sun, and put her into the plane.

Three years earlier, Geoffrey Clifton had planned a murder-suicide that would involve crashing his plane to kill Katharine and the English patient. The patient says that they he and Katharine were not even lovers at the time, but news of the affair must have reached Geoffrey somehow. The Englishman wasn’t hurt in the crash - and Katharine wasn’t killed either, just injured badly. She could not walk to safety, so the English patient left her in the cave alone and went looking for help.

In the cave, the injured Katharine - shattered ribs, broken wrist - remembered what happened once they stopped seeing each other. Her husband began suspecting the English patient once they stopped seeing each other in private - for he was so cold to her in public. She left him not just because she was worried about her husband finding out, but also because she knew she could never change him - that he would never ever reveal one more inch of himself to her.

When the English patient returned to the cave three years later, he dug up the buried plane and put Katharine inside it. He put fuel into the tank and they begin to fly in the rotted plane, but the oil leaked onto him, the plane began to schism, and soon it was on fire, falling from the sky.

Hana comes in and finds Kip and the English patient passing a can of condensed milk back and forth. The English patient tells Hana that they are both "international bastards" - born in one place, and choosing to live elsewhere, "fighting to get back to or get away from our homelands all our lives." Hana watches Kip and sees traits in him that she has in herself - the emotionally disturbed handmaiden, changed forever by war.


The English patient continues his story, albeit elliptically, and we see the tragic conclusion of his love affair with Katharine. Ondaatje is less concerned with creating a compelling "narrative" account of the affair - a chronological account - and more with the vagaries of memory, and how one experiences memory and feelings and buried experience. As a result of this, the English patient tells the story backwards - first he goes in search of a plane, where he finds Katharine’s dead body. Then he tells the story of Katharine’s death. And finally he returns to where we ended the previous chapter - just after he and Katharine agreed to separate.

Katharine reveals that she left the English patient not just to prevent her husband from finding out about them, but more because she felt like she couldn’t change him or open him up any further. He was ice cold, closed up, and had no interest in revealing his deeper character. What’s ironic, of course, is that it is only once they separate that Geoffrey Clifton finds out about the romance. As the patient treats Katharine more cruelly in public, her husband begins to suspect their prior history and then seeks to mete out punishment. What he does, of course is extinguish his own life, and then renew the seeming purgatory of Katharine and the Englishman’s relationship. The English patient takes her to a cave, promising to return, but doesn’t come back for three years.

From a strictly narrative point of view, the English patient’s story is seemingly abusive of the reader - it skips in time, leaves out details, and is as fragmentary as consciousness. But it is the point after all, of this novel, to bring together this house of frigid, dead souls, and to let them clear out the cobwebs and rediscover light, to rekindle their fires, if only for brief moments. Each of our characters gets his or her turn to find hope for life once more by revisiting the past.

In this chapter, Hana becomes even more of a bystander, while the other characters reveal their wounds. Caravaggio is a morphine addict, Kip a man who has lost his connections to his emotions, the English patient just a trove of buried memories. Everyone’s identity is so tenuous - especially with the war over. Hana has given up connection to the world, and no longer has allegiances. Caravaggio is a thief who shows little loyalty. And no one can be sure who the English patient even is. It is one of Caravaggio’s fascinating character quirks that he’s so obsessed with discovering who people actually are - as if it will help give him meaning in this villa where identity seems so prismatic.

How Ondaatje begins and ends chapter is of vital interest, for it gives us clues to the next chain of the narrative. At the end of this chapter, Hana turns her attention to Kip. Previously they were on the English patient - as if her eyes seem to create a narrative spotlight that allow for the expansion and transmission of consciousness. But now she’s looking at Kip, and recognizing in him what she sees in herself: disconnection, withdrawal, loss. As the spotlight turns to Kip, we wait to see what has happened in his past to make him seek out this purgatorial villa, where souls that think themselves doomed find their last glimmers of life.

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