Updated: Aug 23
The structure of “The English Patient” suggests a focus on four characters—Hana, Almasy, Caravaggio, and Kirpal Singh, called Kip, in an originally derogatory way. I believe Kip is in many ways the central figure of the book. In terms of quantity of ink and paper, the Narrator devotes most attention to Kip in the text—a surprising feature if one has just seen the film version which focuses more on the love affair between Almasy and Katherine Clifton.
Kip is a military engineer or sapper in the British Army. He is Sikh, does not cut his hair and wears a turban with his uniform. He appears a quarter of the way into the text, which may be significant (If you subscribe to the theory that a significant event should occur 25% of the way into a novel). Although his older brother is violently opposed to the British for their oppressive colonial policies in India, the text states merely that everything changed with the war. Kip joined a Sikh regiment and shipped out for England. He volunteered for a bomb disposal unit. He comes under the influence and mentorship of an aristocratic Englishmen, Lord Suffolk, and learns the dangerous craft of disarming unexploded bombs. His unit is sent to Italy and this is how he comes to the Villa where Hana is nursing the English Patient and Caravaggio. Kip and Hana become lovers.
How is Kip different from the others? First, and perhaps of most importance, he is dark-skinned and has encountered considerable racism in the British Army. And this cultural/genetic difference becomes central at the end of the story. But there are other differences.
Hana thinks this about him—"There are those destroyed by unfairness and those who are not. If she asks him he will say he has had a good life—a brother in jail, his comrades blown up, and his risking himself daily in the war…he could be all day in a clay pit dismantling a bomb that might kill him at any moment, could come home from the burial of a fellow sapper, his energy saddened, but whatever the trials around him there was always solution and light.”
And Kip is described by the Narrator—“He himself has no mirrors. He wraps his turban outside in his garden, looking about at the moss on trees. But he noticed the swath scissors have made in Hana’s hair. He is familiar with her breath when he places his face against her body…he has come to adore her…Everything is gathered by him as part of an altering harmony. He sees her in differing hours and locations that alter her voice or nature, even her beauty, the way the background power of the sea cradles or governs the fate of lifeboats.”
Kip has encountered major trauma—just as Hana, Almasy, and Caravaggio have, but seems affected by it in a different way—or unaffected by it. He sticks to his rituals, setting up his air mattress each night, riding his motorcycle to the next unexploded bomb. Everything changes when he arrives at the Villa. Before he came, the characters were subsisting, struggling to grieve and heal their wounds. Time was static, they were in a sheltered retreat. Kip brings the future, the reality of the war they’ve tried to escape. His work has to do with clocks counting down the time to an explosion.
The Narrator says, speaking of the denizens of the Villa—“But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others.” An interesting comment. Hana, Almasy, and Caravaggio function by imitating the personalities they’ve lost—a false quest. The truth about themselves is sought in each other. Caravaggio, who is a mutilated spy, studies Almasy, who is an older mutilated spy. Almasy studies Kip, his younger, immortal self. And Hana studies the men to find the truth about herself. Kip doesn’t study the others, one of the ways he’s different. He “has no mirrors.”
A fascinating passage occurs on page 117 in which Almasy talks about the painting of David and Goliath by Caravaggio—the painter, not the thief. “In it, the young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head of Goliath, ravaged and old. But that is not the true sadness in the picture. It is assumed that the face of David is a portrait of the youthful Caravaggio and the head of Goliath is a portrait of him as an older man…Youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand The judging of one’s own mortality. I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David.” Is this yet another mise en abyme? Yup.
In Almasy’s vision, Kip is his younger self, stubborn, angry, obsessive. Kip has “double-ness” with Almasy. In the end, indeed, Kip is about to kill Almasy but pulls back from the brink.
More on the ending next week.