This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (7)
In between the purity—the depth and quiet—of our natural world, and the chaos and horror of humankind’s cruelest deeds, there is a fuse. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient balances on the pinnacle between what is de-fused and what ignites—exploding in one’s hands.
In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence (141).
Simply stated: it is a beautifully written book. Some of the lines are just devastatingly lovely. Many years ago I saw the film, which I liked, and I had the book somewhere in my mental-book-queue to read. But it wasn’t until my step-father mentioned he was reading it (and highly enjoying it) that I hurried over to the library. I swear, when the library has the book I want on the shelf I sometimes skip and hum a tune!— it is akin to the joy that only a best friend can bring. But I digress…although, not too much because the blood and sinew of The English Patient really is books.
‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love….How old did you say you were?
“I was much older when I fell in love” (119).
It is the books that sooth and alter with unthreatening loyalty. The story sways from post-WWII Italy, with a mysterious, gruesomely burnt, “English patient,” a nurse, an Indian bomb defuser, and a former thief/spy, to the pre-WWII deserts of Africa and a wrenching adulterous love affair.
After that month in Cairo she was muted, read constantly, kept to herself, as if something had occurred or she realized suddenly that wondrous thing about the human being, it can change (230).
On the heels of her honeymoon with her very blue-blooded husband, Clifton, Catherine falls devastatingly in love with Almásy. How does this happen? “How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled (158)? I am sure I don’t know, but I wonder too… “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Towards a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams (150). When one’s own mind and heart are as fathomlessly mysterious as a desert perhaps this is what makes an unquenchable desire for knowledge to bloom, a seeking thirst that books, at least, seem to temporarily abate and rectify.
She was discovering herself. It was painful to watch, because Clifton could not see it, her self-education. She read everything about the desert. She could talk about Uweinat and the lost oasis, had even hunted down marginal articles (230).
Of course there is much more to this story than the mystery of love. But perhaps everything is subordinate—so much of the action of life is dependant on love. Love is the logical casing in which everything else is shaped: treachery, pain, torture, slaughter, nationhood, racism, religion, emptiness, caring, tenderness, melancholy and mirth—it is all encased or exiled from a simple thing—the unity (in unity) of love. What does our love serve? If we are not defusing bombs, then the detonation is inevitable— horrifyingly so. But life is complex; passion is a powerful thing, and love—love is the essential thing. How do we know whom to trust, where our hearts are safe from devious trip wires?
When someone speaks he looks at a mouth, not eyes and their colors, which, it seems to him, will always alter depending on the light of a room, the minute of the day. Mouths reveal insecurity or smugness or any other point on the spectrum of character (219).
The impersonal majesty of nature, (in the case of this story—the desert) lifts and joins our souls, yes, and books orient and expand our minds, ah but it is love, love, that unifies and mends our hearts, body and soul.
But all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur (259).