Tell Me a Story
Last week, I identified two modes of narration in “The English Patient,” the (nearly) invisible narrator who tells the story of the four characters living in the ruined Italian villa, and the many stories the characters tell each other—Count Almasy being prominent among them. So how do these modes interact? Are there mise en abymes lurking?
In order to begin to answer these questions, I should bravely state what I think is the point of “The English Patient.” There is a level at which you can quite happily read the book and savor the unfolding tale of how Almasy was burned, the suspense of whether or not Caravaggio will take revenge on Almasy for the loss of his thumbs, what will become of Hana and Kip’s love affair. But (a big but) I don’t think those questions are the essence of the whole story. Yes, they are all answered, but I think the essential question in “The English Patient” is a broader one that concerns whether or not the characters will recover from the traumatic experiences they’ve had in the war.
The mysterious narrator entity actually tells us—"Many books open with an author’s assurance of order…But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door or a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat.” The story begins with characters who have lived through and been marked by terrible events, descriptions of chaos.
Caravaggio considers Hana—“Maybe this is the way to come out of a war, he thinks. A burned man to care for, some sheets to wash in a fountain, a room painted like a garden. As if all that remains is a capsule from the past…”
Yes, I think “The English Patient” is about trauma and (potential) recovery.
If you look at it in this way, the stories within the story (how Almasy was burned, for instance) begin to make sense in their relation to the whole. Almasy is horribly disfigured; he’s dying—Hana asks him how were you burned? And he tells her the story of falling burning into the desert, of how he was rescued by the Bedouin so that he could help them to identify weaponry they’d scavenged. That’s all he reveals at that early point in the book, later there will be much more about why he was flying a plane over the lines in the first place. But this first story is essentially a story of someone being saved from trauma, albeit temporarily.
Then we find an intertextual reference! Hana is reading a particular book, “The Last of the Mohicans.” If you’ll indulge my oversimplifying here, this can be seen as a story of characters living through the trauma of war, some of them die, some survive. Huh—sounds…familiar.
The next story within a story is told by Caravaggio. He tells Hana about how he was captured while spying on the Germans, how, by accident, he was photographed and had to recover the film in order to protect his identity. The woman who took the photo actually tried to help him, but he was ultimately caught. This led to his torture and mutilation, but that comes out later. What we have here is a story of suspense—will he recover the film and escape? Will he be able to take action to save himself? I think the link with Almasy’s story is that the stories are incomplete, leaving the reader wanting more, and the characters both must rely on others for help.
And this is true in the larger story as well. The characters recover from trauma to varying degrees by their relationships with each other—Caravaggio with Hana and Almasy, Hana with Almasy and Kip, even Almasy, who dies at the end, achieves fulfillment by telling his life to Hana, letting her read his book, “and in his commonplace book, his 190 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name.”
Kip himself, is a different sort, I think, and deserves more attention—and that will come, I assure you.
So, there you have it. A story about traumatic memory and possible recovery, with many briefer stories with the same theme embedded in the whole. Smaller mirrors. And nearly continual references to reading.