Updated: Aug 23
Today, I want to write about how verb tenses are used in “The English Patient” to—(WTF? Sounds like a snooze-fest, pal. Maybe catch you next week).
Nonetheless—we are accustomed to being unaware of verb tenses as we read, it’s more of a subliminal thing. But it has a powerful impact on how we make meaning of what we read. If you are a writer, you must be very sensitive to this impact, and you probably have spent painful hours obsessively switching from past to present and vice-versa. (I have). A problem for a writer in a complex story is how to cue the reader that time has shifted and that different characters are experiencing the action.
Now, a speedy review of grammar.
The English language has three basic, or “simple,” verb tenses—present, past, and future. Then there are three “perfect” tenses that express an action that was or will be completed at the time of another action or a specific occasion. (Ex. I will be asleep if I read more about grammar).
Two tense moods (tense moods?—sounds like the way you feel after too much coffee) that are useful to be aware of are the preterite—used to express a completed action—and the imperfect—used when speaking of an on-going action. English doesn’t have a clear imperfect tense the way other languages do, but the imperfect can be conveyed by using auxiliary words, like “She would hold the glass when it was half-full.” So the imperfect and the preterite are distinct from one another—either an action in the past is complete or it’s on-going. (The neighbor’s lawnmower has been running since four a.m.!)
So let’s look at the shifting moods in “The English Patient.”
The intro is all a quote from the Geographical Society minutes. Quotes from a text within a text are interesting—they occur in the past and are completed but have an ambiguous feeling of being present—because someone is quoting them in the present. Then things get going in Chapter One. “She stands up in the garden where she has been working…” Clear present tense—whatever year we’re reading this, the text is cueing us that it is describing a present moment.
Then we have a paragraph break, which communicates change of some sort, and “Every four days she washes his black body…” Okay, this is what I was writing about above—an “imperfect” action expressed in the English language. It indicates an on-going action—every four days, she does something. (It also adds considerable variety, vs. sticking with one tense or experience of time). The scene that follows shows Hana washing the English Patient, as well as her inner experience. It uses the present tense—“She pours calamine lotion in stripes across his chest…He turns his dark face with its gray eyes towards her…He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse…”—although there’s a sense of the imperfect, uncompleted actions continuing. So it’s a description of her nursing routine, and of her inner experience of it, and about how the English patient responds—every four days. About what happens.
Could it be thought of as the same sort of present tense scene that begins the book? Don’t think so. Because it expresses an on-going action, an action that repeats. What occurs doesn’t occur one time and ends. This device also imparts an imprecise, dream-like quality to the character’s story.
Another paragraph break—Ondaatje uses these a lot, combined with chapter breaks, they make up an architecture of the novel. Then a passage that begins in the imperfect. “There are stories the man recites quietly into the room…” Then a very graceful shift. Hana is there with Almasy in a scene, he’s telling her a story in present tense—a particular event. “It is late afternoon. His hands play with a piece of sheet, the back of his fingers caressing it.” Now he shifts to past tense. “I fell burning into the desert…They found my body and made me a boat of sticks…” Then a return to the present. Hana asks, “Who are you?”
I want to skip ahead a bit to show a further use of tense. So far, we have the present action, repeated actions in imperfect, and Almasy’s stories in past tense. Now a new section or chapter appears—In Near Ruins. “The man with bandaged hands had been in the military hospital in Rome…He turned from the doorway and walked back into the clutch of doctors…” Past tense. This story about Caravaggio is not told by Almasy, or Hana, or by himself—the Narrator tells it. This will become a pattern in the book—stories are told about the characters in past tense and in third person. Almasy’s stories tend to be past tense, first person—“I fell burning into the desert.”
This is the kind of subtle cue I’m talking about. The structure of the story, the actual physical arrangement of words on paper or screen, plus the grammatical structure, conveys meaning.