The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 6 : A Buried Plane | Summary

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Summary

Caravaggio tells Hana he believes he knows the real identity of the English patient—Ladislaus de Almásy, a Hungarian count who explored the desert before the war and turned double and triple agent between the British and Germans as a spy. Caravaggio points out that Almásy knew how to fly and had an English accent from attending school in England. Hana says the war is over, and it doesn't really matter who he is. Caravaggio wants to question the patient under the influence of alcohol and morphine.

The English patient recalls the time in 1942 when he was driving back across the desert and his vehicle blew up. He walked for days to a place where he knew Madox's old plane lay buried in the sand. It was next to the Cave of Swimmers, an ancient place with cave paintings on the walls. Inside, he finds Katharine's body still there.

The English patient then remembers what occurred three years prior. Katharine's husband had found out about their affair, and planned a murder-suicide by crashing his plane to kill his wife, the English patient, and himself. The wreck killed Clifton, badly injured Katharine, and stranded the English patient. He had carried Katharine into the cave, and set out on foot to find help. When he returned to the cave three years later he had fuel with him. He dug out the plane, and took off with Katharine's body beside him. Oil leaked into the cockpit, and the plane caught fire. He put on a parachute and dropped out of the plane, his body ablaze.

Kip tells the English patient about his training in England. The English patient seems familiar with Lord Suffolk. Kips says Lord Suffolk, his secretary, and his chauffeur were all blown up at Erith in 1941. Hana recognizes from his demeanor that he is deeply traumatized by the event, as she has been by witnessing so much suffering and death in the soldiers she nursed.

Analysis

Identity is important in this chapter. The identity of the English patient may finally be solved by Caravaggio, as all the pieces seem to fit. Almásy was a desert explorer, had an English accent, was a spy during the war, and knew how to fly. As a spy who aided the Germans, Almásy would have an interest in keeping his identity a secret. Fittingly, with his devastating burns, the English patient has nearly succeeded in erasing his identity. He neither confirms nor denies Caravaggio's suspicions. Hana doesn't think his identity matters at all anymore. She doesn't care who is, or what he has done. She cares about who he is now—her patient.

As he often does, the author begins at the end of the story, and then offers details to explain the ending to some extent, creating suspense and surprise and a sense of solving an unraveling mystery, which wouldn't be there if the author simply told the story in a linear way. In this chapter, the author begins with the English patient's discovery of Katharine's body. The English patient knew it would likely be there, but readers had no idea she had even died. To some extent, his reunion with his lover—although she had been dead for years—explains his reaction, but the shock of her death to readers makes his desire for her corpse all the more shocking. Readers want to know how she came to be there and what caused her death. The author then goes back three years in time to give the backstory that led to that moment. This nonlinear narrative style means the story comes in waves, interrupted by other subplots along the way.

In this chapter, the author also provides the answer to the mystery of how the English patient came to be burned and rescued from an airplane crash in the desert. It is a strange tale, as complex and dark as readers might expect of a character like the English patient. The tragic end of the destructive, passionate love affair between the English patient and Katharine has a sick twist. He did not or could not save her, and he still wants her even when she has been dead for three years. They are almost cremated together in the plane. The author leaves out one part of the story, however. Careful readers will notice the gap of three years and wonder if something prevented Almásy from returning sooner to help Katharine.

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