Many stories—no matter how artfully done—adhere to a very tight structure—characters are introduced in a situation, characters who have a problem that must be dealt with. They deal with it, and the problem is resolved. A great example is “The Lord of the Rings.” The evil ring must be destroyed; Frodo and Sam must overcome impossible odds to destroy it, but succeed. In the end, the world is rid of evil, but Frodo is left damaged (by trauma?) and must leave Middle Earth forever. The fates of the other characters are accounted for—explained. The reader cares about Aragorn and Arwen, and is pleased to know they marry and prosper. The ending is closed. (Go back to you loves, citizens!).
For the characters in “The English Patient,” the trauma of war is the “ring,” the thing they must “destroy” to go on in their lives. (At least that’s what I think. IMHO—except I’m not very humble). So what happens at the end? How does the story show these reactions, and what are they?
Let’s split this into two parts, best beloved. It’s a big subject. These questions need answers.
Last week, I wrote about how the character of Kip, the sapper, is different from the others. “He has no mirrors,” meaning, I believe, that others do not see themselves in him. He is a figure in the present, a reminder to the other inhabitants of the Villa that the present exists. He relies on routine and this focus on the present to get him through intense trauma. But at the end, he reaches a breaking point and leaves them all.
As is his habit, Kip is listening to his radio and receives news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scene is shown through Hana’s perspective: “She sees him in the field, his hands clasped over his head, then realizes this is a gesture not of pain but of his need to hold the earphones tight against his brain…she hears a scream emerge from his body which had never raised its voice among them. He sinks to his knees as if unbuckled.”
Kip then goes into his tent, emerges from it with his rifle, and rushes to Almasy’s room, confronting him with the colonial crimes of the English and the Americans. He puts the earphones on Almasy’s burned head so he can hear about the bombings. Kip’s inner experience is described: “If he closes his eyes, he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them…” Hana enters, Caravaggio comes in and tries to disarm Kip, but Kip hits him with the rifle butt. Kip denounces them all, Caravaggio tells him that Almasy is not English, but Kip again points the rifle at Almasy, who urges him to shoot, saying he doesn’t want to hear anymore.
But Kip throws away the rifle. “The sapper walks out of the room, leaving Caravaggio and Hana by the bed. He has left the three of them to their world, is no longer their sentinel. In the future, if and when the patient dies, Caravaggio and the girl will bury him. Let the dead bury their dead.”
Kip is flooded with the trauma of the atomic bombings and reacts with rage and violence; he doesn’t withdraw from the present as the others do. Finally though, he must escape—not so much from the awful news, but from Almasy, Hana, and Caravaggio and the insular world of the Villa. He cannot be among them any longer. They are the “dead.” The past.
“His name is Kirpal Singh and he does not know what he is doing here.” (In the past).
Kirpal Singh packs up and leaves—the villa, Hana, Almasy, Caravaggio, the British Army. He races his motorcycle south, eventually losing control of it on a bridge and breaking through the guardrail to fall into a river. Then, “The sapper’s bare head comes out of the water, and he gasps in all the air above the river.”
He reclaims his name and identity. He is reborn.
What happens? For now, let’s just say that Kirpal Singh’s story ends the story. He has the last word, and his fate—like Frodo’s—is pretty clearly defined. Closed.
Not so the others.
Next week, my friends. Next week.