Combing Rain into her Hair
Last week, I promised to further discuss the ending of “The English Patient.” We talked at length about the character of Kirpal Singh and how his ending differs from the others. Let’s discuss and then circle back to Kirpal Singh because, best beloved, he has the final appearance in the book.
The English Patient’s—Count Almasy’s—fate is announced on page two. The present of the book occurs in the months “before he died.” But his death is not shown, as a version of it is shown in the film (more on that next week).
In his final appearance, Almasy wakes up in the middle of the night. “Around three a.m. he feels a presence in the room. He sees, for the pulse of a moment, a figure at the foot of his bed, against the wall or painted onto it perhaps, not quite discernible in the darkness of foliage beyond the candlelight. He mutters something, something he had wanted to say, but there is silence and the slight brown figure, which could be just a night shadow, does not move. A poplar. A man with plumes. A swimming figure. And he would not be so lucky, he thinks, to speak to the young sapper again.”
I used to think this figure was the Narrator, and that’s possible, although the Narrator is busy narrating the scene. It could be Caravaggio, who’s always skulking around. But Almasy’s experience, I think, is key. He believes it would be lucky to see Kip again—that it’s a vision of Kip. “If the figure turns around there will be paint on his back, where he slammed in grief against the mural of trees. When the candle dies out he will be able to see this.” Very enigmatic. How will Almasy be able to see when the candle goes out? The candle light obscures what’s there. He doesn’t need it anymore. He’s dying.
Last week, we spoke of Almasy and Kip’s “doubleness,” how Almasy sees Kip in himself. I think this mysterious figure is Almasy’s vision of Kip, his younger self. Angry, obsessive. His farewell to Kip and to himself. And of the book to him.
Caravaggio is last seen by Hana, walking a tightrope he’s strung to the next villa. A switch to his POV: “He is halfway across when he smells the rain, and then it begins to fall all over his body, clinging to him, and suddenly there is the greater weight of his clothes.” Back to Hana:
“She put her cupped palms out of the window and combs rain into her hair.”
And then a bravura leap forward, fourteen years—1954, roughly. Kip is married, has children, lives in India, is a doctor. He treats a burned patient, and it provokes a memory of Hana. He remembers her fondly, considers writing her a letter.
A paragraph break, and Hana:
“And Hana moves possibly in the company that is not her choice. She, at even this age, thirty-four, has not found her own company, the ones she wanted…People fall in love with her…She is a woman I don’t know well enough to hold in my wing. If writers have wings, to harbor for the rest of my life.”
The first time I read the novel, this “I” puzzled me. I tried to fit this entity into one of the characters, Kip maybe. But no—finally at the end, Ondaatje deploys the Narrator, the writer, who feels humbled at the task of knowing a character well enough, of the impossibility of predicting all a character may do. The way a novel takes on a life of its own.
So, if I’m right that “The English Patient” is a story of people dealing with trauma, how does this ending fit? Do the characters heal? Almasy, the English Patient, dies, but he’s passed on his story to Hana and Caravaggio, a form of healing. Caravaggio continues his work of foraging/looting, which he has done all along. But he does realize that Kip is right, that the atomic bomb would never have been dropped on a “white nation.” He gives Kip a bear-hug as he leaves. He seems to understand Almasy at a deep level, forgives him for helping the Nazis (I’m afraid so). He shows Hana his wounds, allows her to tend them—all these things are evidence of healing..
Kip seems to be prospering in his life in India, expressing normal regrets about an old love. Hana does not seem healed, she remains troubled and remembers Almasy and the stories he told. She is the only character who continues a fascination with stories and the past—which is perfectly fine, but in the context of the book may signal she has farther to go to heal.
And at the very end, Hana accidently knocks a cup to the floor, and at the same moment, on the other side of the world, Kip’s young daughter drops a fork. Both objects fall, Kip catches the fork, “a wrinkle at the edge of his eyes behind his spectacles.”