The English Patient

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This article is about the novel. For the film, see The English Patient (film). For other uses, see The English Patient (disambiguation).
The English Patient
First edition cover
Author Michael Ondaatje
Cover artist Cecil Beaton
Country Canada
Language English
Genre Historiographic metafiction
Publisher McClelland and Stewart
Publication date
September 1992
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 320 pp
ISBN 0-7710-6886-7
OCLC 26257641

The English Patient is a 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje. The book follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The four main characters include: an unrecognisably-burned Englishman, his Canadian Army nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief. The story occurs during the North African Campaign and centres on the incremental revelations of the Englishman's actions prior to his injuries, and the emotional effects of these revelations on the other characters.


The historical backdrop for this novel is the North African/Italian Campaigns of World War II. Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, lives in the bombed out and abandoned Villa San Girolamo. The Villa San Girolamo, an Italian monastery, is filled with many hidden, unexploded bombs. All that Hana knows about the English Patient was that he was terribly burned beyond recognition in a plane crash before being taken to the British hospital by Bedouin. His only possession is a well worn copy of Herodotus' histories that has survived the fiery parachute drop. His many annotations of the book constantly recalls in great detail memories of his explorations in the desert; yet he is unable to recall his own name and instead chooses to maintain the assumption by others that he is an Englishman based on the sound of his voice. The patient is, in fact, László de Almásy, a Hungarian Count and desert explorer; one of the many members of a British cartography group.

Caravaggio is an Italian-Canadian in the British foreign intelligence service since the late 1930s and was a friend of Hana's father before he died in the war. His skill as a thief leads his way into the world of spying. He seeks out Hana when he learns that she is at the villa caring for a patient. Caravaggio bears physical and psychological scars; in order to spy, he remains in North Africa when German forces gain control and transfers to Italy. He eventually gets caught, interrogated, and tortured; they even cut off his thumbs. Three years later Caravaggio seeks vengeance against those who mutilated him.

While Hana is playing the piano two British soldiers enter the villa. One of the men is Kip, an Indian Sikh who is trained as a sapper, specializing in bomb and ordnance disposal. Kip explains that pianos are often booby-trapped by the Germans. It is because of this that Kip decides to stay at the villa to attempt to rid the villa of its dangers. Kip and the English Patient immediately become friends.

Plied by morphine, the English patient begins to reveal everything: he falls in love with the Englishwoman Katherine Clifton who, with her husband Geoffrey. accompanies Almásy's desert exploration team. Almásy is mesmerized by Katharine's voice as she reads Herodotus' histories out loud by the campfire. They soon begin a very intense affair, but she cuts it short, claiming that Geoffrey would go mad if he were to discover them.

The expedition team decides to break base camp with the coming of war in 1939 and with that an offer by Geoffrey to return Almásy to Cairo on his plane. Unbeknownst to him is that Katherine is on board the plane and Geoffrey aims it toward Almasy and when the plane tilts, it crashes into the ground. Caravaggio tells him that British Intelligence knew about the affair. It is only Geoffrey that is killed outright by the crash, Katherine is injured internally and Almasy leaves her in "the Cave of Swimmers"', the latter discovered in the 1930s. Almásy takes a three day walk to British-controlled town El Taj for help. There, Almásy offers up his name for identification and since they detain him as a spy despite telling them about Katherine, he decides to side with the Germans. He later guides German spies across the desert into Cairo. Almásy goes to the Cave to retrieve Katharine's body. The rotted plane leaks oil onto him and both catch fire. He breaks free from the flaming plane and the Bedouin then find him and his parachute covered in flames.



Count Ladislaus de Almásy is the title character. He arrives, under Hana's care, burned beyond recognition. He has a face, but it is unrecognisable. He also has no tags with which they can identify him. The only thing that is known about him is that he is said to be English. Thus, they call him just the English Patient. Lacking any identification, Almásy serves as a sort of blank canvas onto which the other characters project their wishes. Hana finds redemption in him for not being at her father's side when he died in a similar fashion. He had no one to comfort him, so Hana tries to comfort the English Patient in the way that she was unable to comfort her own father. The irony in the tale arises in that Almásy is not, in fact, English. Rather, he is Hungarian by birth and has tried to erase all ties to his country throughout his desert explorations.

Due to his complete rejection of nationalism, many of Almásy's actions, which would otherwise seem reprehensible, are somewhat forgiven. To a man with no nation, it is not wrong to help a German spy across the desert. The German is simply another man. Almásy is portrayed in a sympathetic light. This is partly because Almásy tells his own story, but it is also because Almásy always adheres to his own moral code.

Almásy is also at the centre of one of the novel's love stories. He is involved in an adulterous relationship with Katharine Clifton, which eventually leads to her death and the death of her husband, Geoffrey Clifton. Katharine is the figure who leads Almásy to sensuality. He falls in love with her voice as she reads Herodotus. Sensuality—in both the sexual and observational senses—is a major theme to the novel.

The character is loosely based on László Almásy, a well-known desert explorer in 1930s Egypt, and who helped the German side in World War II. Almásy did not suffer burns or die in Italy, but survived the war and lived until 1951.


Hana is a twenty year old Canadian Army nurse. Hana is torn between her youth and her maturity. In a sense, she has lost her childhood too early. Hana, being a good nurse, quickly learns that she cannot become emotionally attached to her patients. She calls them all "buddy," and immediately detaches from them once they die. Her lover, a Canadian officer, is killed. It is because of this that Hana comes to believe that she is cursed and that all of those around her are doomed to die.

In contrast to this detachment, upon hearing of her father's death Hana has an emotional breakdown. She then puts all of her energy into caring for the English Patient. She washes his wounds and provides him with morphine. When the hospital is abandoned, Hana refuses to leave and instead stays with her patient. She sees Almásy as saintlike and falls in love with his pure nature.

The character of Hana is entirely paradoxical. She is mature beyond her years, but she still clings to childlike practices. She plays hopscotch in the villa and sees the English Patient as a noble hero who is suffering. She projects her own romanticized images onto the blank slate of the English Patient, forming a sort of fairytale existence for herself. In addition to her relationship with Almásy, Hana also forms a strong relationship with Kip during his stay at the villa.


Triumph 3HW 350cc motorcycle used by Kip in the novel

Kirpal (Kip) Singh is an Indian Sikh. Kip was trained to be a sapper officer by Lord Suffolk who also, essentially, made him a part of his family. Kip is, perhaps, the most conflicted character of the novel. His brother is an Indian nationalist and strongly anti-Western. By contrast, Kip willingly joins the British military. In doing so he was met with much reservation from his white colleagues. This causes Kip to become somewhat emotionally withdrawn.

The one place in England where Kip is completely and unreservedly accepted is the household of Lord Suffolk. Lord Suffolk is an eccentric English nobleman who develops the practice of dismantling German bombs that have not yet exploded. This is a complicated and highly dangerous discipline. Lord Suffolk becomes Kip's mentor, friend, and in effect surrogate father. Kip's emotional withdrawal becomes more pronounced when Lord Suffolk and his team are killed while attempting to dismantle a new type of bomb. The bomb detonates, killing all of them. (It should be noted that Charles Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk, was an actual historical person. He did participate in the practice of dismantling bombs, and was indeed killed in the manner described in the book).

After this event, Kip is ordered to Italy where he meets Hana. He and his partner hear her playing piano, and, as musical instruments were often wired, entered the villa to stop her. Kip's partner leaves the villa, but Kip stays on to clear the large number of mines and booby-traps he believes the Germans have left.

Kip and Hana become lovers and, through that, Kip begins to regain confidence and a sense of community. He feels welcomed by these Westerners, and they all seem to form a group that disregards national origins.

They get together and celebrate Hana's 21st birthday, a symbol of their friendship and Kip's acceptance. However, when learning of the Nuclear bombing of Hiroshima Kip is thoroughly shocked. He immediately leaves, unable to believe that Westerners would do such a thing. Kip goes back to India and never returns, though later in his life he often thinks of Hana.

David Caravaggio[edit]

David Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and long-time friend of Hana's father. His profession is legitimized by the war, as the Allies needed people to steal important documents for them. When Caravaggio arrives at the villa he is known as "the man with bandaged hands." He is known as this due to the fact that his hands are heavily bandaged from the time he was caught in Italy. He was taken prisoner in Florence, and his captors cut his thumbs off. He recalls the one who ordered the act was named Ranuccio Tommasoni. This is a reference to a man by the same name who was murdered by the historical Caravaggio in 1606.[1] Physically and mentally, Caravaggio can no longer steal, having "lost his nerve." Hana remembers him as a very human thief. He would always get distracted by the human element in a job. For instance, if an advent calendar was on the wrong day, he would fix it. She also has deep feelings of love for Caravaggio. It is debated if this love is romantic or simply familial. Although this is debated, Caravaggio does display a romantic love towards Hana in parts of the book.

Similar to Almásy, Caravaggio is also addicted to morphine. Knowing this Caravaggio uses it against Almásy to get information out of him. At times throughout the novel Caravaggio has his suspicions that Almásy is, in fact, not English.

Katharine Clifton[edit]

Katharine Clifton is the wife of Geoffrey Clifton. The couple met at college during their time at Oxford. During the context of events told by the English Patient, she was only married to Geoffrey for a year. The day after they got married, she and Geoffrey flew to the desert to join Almásy's expedition crew. Almásy falls in love with Katharine when she reads from his copy of The Histories around a campfire. Almásy and Katharine soon begin an affair. However, soon after it starts Katharine is torn by guilt and eventually breaks off from the affair. Geoffrey discovers of the affair and attempts to kill all three of them in a plane crash. Geoffrey is the only one who is killed in the plane crash. After Geoffrey kills himself, Katharine and Almásy are stuck in the desert. It is in the desert that Katharine admits that she always loved Almásy.

Geoffrey Clifton[edit]

Katharine Clifton's husband. He joins Almásy's exploration group as another desert explorer, but is in fact on a secret mission of the British government to make detailed maps of North Africa. The plane that he claims to own in actuality does not belong to him. The plane is actually property of the Crown, given to him to complete his mission. To perform his mission, he leaves his wife, Katharine, in the desert with the other explorers on the expedition.


The novel won the 1992 Booker Prize and the 1992 Governor General's Award.

Film adaptation[edit]

The book was adapted into a 1996 film by Anthony Minghella, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, and Juliette Binoche. The film received nine Academy Awards—including Best Picture and Director—at the 69th Academy Awards.


  1. ^ Don Meredith. Varieties of Darkness: The World of the English Patient. University Press of America, 2011. ISBN 9780761857235. p. 12.
  • Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. "Ondaatje's The English Patient and Questions of History." Comparative Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje's Writing. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2005. 115-32.
  • Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. "Michael Ondaatje's 'The English Patient,' 'History,' and the Other." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999)[1].

External links[edit]

Preceded by
The Famished Road
Booker Prize recipient
with Sacred Hunger
Succeeded by
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Preceded by
Such a Long Journey
Governor General's Award for English language fiction recipient
Succeeded by
The Stone Diaries