The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 2 : In Near Ruins | Summary

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Summary

An old friend of Hana's—whom the reader learns is the young nurse—happened to hear her name while he was in the hospital with wounds to his hands. Caravaggio was a friend of Patrick, Hana's father, and has known her since childhood. He recalls her as a young girl singing a song from French class—"Alonson Fon"—standing on a bench with her hand over her heart. Caravaggio had been a thief in Canada, and his skills translated well to espionage for the Allied forces in his native country of Italy.

His cover was blown at a German party when he was photographed by Anna, the mistress of a general. To recover the film and prevent his exposure, Caravaggio pretended to be drunk and walked into the guarded house later, naked, for a supposed tryst. He entered the room next to Anna's and slipped from its window into her window. In her dark room, he heard a couple having sex. He groped his way around, searching for the camera. Just as he found it, a car's headlights revealed his presence. He made a threatening gesture to ensure Anna's silence, and she didn't give him away. He was caught as he jumped from the window to escape. The Germans had a woman cut off his thumbs. The torture was interrupted by a series of phone calls. Germany was withdrawing from the area. Caravaggio found himself set free. He laid down on a bridge just before the Germans blew it up as they retreated, but he survived. After finding out about Hana's location from personnel at the hospital, Caravaggio made his way to the villa where they are reunited.

Hana has been deeply affected by her experiences as a nurse in the war. She has cared for so many dying soldiers that she has put up a defensive wall, calling them all "Buddy." Her spirit was broken when she learned her father had been killed in the war. She had thought of him like the statue of a white lion outside the hospital in Pisa, "a sentinel." Amid the neglected topiary on the grounds, only the lion was permanent. Nurses like Hana were eventually broken down by the psychological stress, just like the men blown up by mines even as they tried to defuse them.

After learning of her father's death, Hana met the English patient. She wanted to save him. When the villa was evacuated, Hana resigned from her duties. Her war was over. She would stay with the English patient. Caravaggio accuses her of throwing herself away by loving "a ghost" who will bring her only sadness. She says she can't help but feel compassion for the mysterious, burned man. When she suggests that Caravaggio teach her to steal chickens for food, he explains that ever since the torture he has "lost [his] nerve." He doesn't let her watch him eat. Late one night Hana uncovers the piano, and while she plays, two men enter the villa and stand at the end of the piano, their guns illuminated by flashes of lightning. Hana notices the turban of one of the soldiers, a Sikh. She feels relief, and notes that she is surrounded by foreign men in the villa.

Analysis

In this chapter, the author explores the theme of the destructive power of war. The war has damaged people, much like it has damaged physical structures such as villas and bridges. As the war has blown away parts of the villa, it has broken Caravaggio, taking his thumbs and his confidence. Even things that seem like permanent, enduring, protective fixtures can be destroyed in a moment. War has the power to break people internally, too. Hana's spirit has been broken by the death and pain she has endured because of the war. Caravaggio can see she is no longer the same person. War leaves a record of its damaging force.

Readers are introduced to Caravaggio in this chapter. As the author does with the other characters, he begins with the present view of Caravaggio with bandaged hands and then goes back to moments in his past to slowly paint a picture of what has happened to him, how he has come to be at the villa, and why his hands are injured. Readers learn that Caravaggio has always been a thief but that he became involved in the war as a spy for the Allies. Readers witness Caravaggio's acting skills and stealth in his late-night mission to recover the camera film. The loss of his thumbs is perhaps the worst punishment for a pickpocket or spy. He refuses to let Hana see him eat, as he is unable to hold a fork or knife. He is embarrassed by his disfigurement and lost, but he clearly cares about Hana, whom he knew as a child. He is concerned that her affection for the English patient will end up hurting her.

The author further develops Hana's character. She has stayed with the English patient out of a desire to save someone because she can't save her father. She left the army to create her own rules and a safe place and to care for him. The song she learned in French as a child—"Alonson Fon"—seems to consist of words she did not understand correctly. They were really the opening lines to the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise": "Allons, enfants de la patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé." This translates to "Let us go, children of the fatherland, The day of glory has arrived." Hana's hometown of Toronto, Canada, was originally settled by the French before it came under British rule. The author contrasts this memory of her past self with the woman she has become. She was once a naive, patriotic girl but now refuses to participate in the war effort any longer.

Hana is the lone woman in the circle of main characters and in the villa. She is surrounded not only by men, but by masculine machinations of war. Her femininity is a foil for the male characters and chaos of the remains of war. She creates something of a family and approximation of domesticity in the ruins of the villa.

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