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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 9 : The Cave of Swimmers | Summary



Under the influence of morphine, the English patient shares memories with Caravaggio. He recalls again when Clifton and Katharine first joined the expedition. Clifton had constantly bragged about his wife's beauty. Around the fire Katharine read the story of Candaules, a king of Lydia, who tells a man called Gyges of his wife's beauty and then arranges for Gyges to see her naked. The queen finds out she has been seen and tells Gyges he can kill Candaules and marry her, or he must be killed himself. He chooses the first option.

While the English patient turns to his copy of Herodotus as a guide and a map, he thinks Katharine looks to books "as a window to her life." The English patient fell in love with Katharine that night because of the way she spoke. A year later they were lovers. Although they kept their affair from Clifton, the English patient was not aware of the English "machine" that surrounded Clifton. They were unaware that he knew their every move. Caravaggio tells the English patient that Clifton was an English spy. British intelligence was alarmed at his death and Katharine's disappearance, and they considered the English patient—who they knew as Almásy—the murder suspect. The English patient admits he is Almásy.

The English patient reflects on the many ways in which he and his friend Madox were opposites. Madox's favorite book was Anna Karenina. Madox described their desert expeditions with "joy ... as if we were Anna and Vronsky at a dance." As the war approached, everyone left the desert, and Madox returned to England. During a sermon praising the war, he shot himself.

While the English patient was cleaning out a final campsite, Clifton tried to kill him with the plane, crashing it and injuring Katherine. In the Cave of Swimmers, where the English patient has taken the injured Katherine, he talked to her and painted her body with pigments from the cave walls. He believes that in death people are "communal histories, communal books." He left her in the cave and walked for three days across the desert before he came upon some British troops. He begged them to help Katharine, whom he called his wife. They refused and caged him, suspecting him to be the enemy. The English patient now realizes they would have helped him if he had given them her real name. He comes to understand that Clifton and the British "web" were much like Vronsky, surrounded by loyal people in high positions. It was then that he turned to helping the Germans, guiding a spy named Eppler across the desert. Caravaggio tells him the English were tracking the English patient on the journey and were responsible for the bomb that eventually blew up his truck, forcing him to walk the rest of the way to the cave.


This chapter is a good example of how the author uses nonlinear narrative to reveal new information and insights into events, some of which the text has already covered. Readers know from earlier chapters of the English patient's affair with Katharine, as well as her death, so revisiting her first arrival with Clifton takes on new significance. The author also uses this retelling of events to convey more information about the time period. Katharine seems to initiate the affair with her suggestive reading of the Candaules poem. Readers who had wondered why the English patient didn't return to the cave to rescue Katharine learn here for the first time that he could perhaps have saved her if he had used her real name. The role British Intelligence played in the plot is suddenly revealed, not just to readers, but to the English patient. They had been tracking him, watching him all along. He had not been as mysterious as he thought. Each retelling of episodes adds layers of understanding and meaning to the events. Nonlinear narrative and cyclical retelling of certain parts of his history also fit with the English patient's mental state—high on morphine most of the time and certainly for most this chapter.

The mystery of the English patient's identity, suspected earlier by Caravaggio, is finally confirmed in Chapter 9. He is Almásy, a spy for the Germans. Readers learn enough to understand to some extent his choices. The author offers the final pieces of the puzzle to complete his story—who he is, his role in the war, and why it took him several years to return to the cave.

The author explores the theme of intertextuality throughout the chapter. Katharine reads the story of Candaules from the English patient's copy of Herodotus, and Madox carries a copy of Anna Karenina. Readers learn the role the texts play, beyond merely references or quotes from other works, in the story and in the lives of the characters. The English patient repeatedly turns to his copy of Herodotus for guidance but also as a place to record his knowledge. He has glued in pieces of other texts as well as his own observations, as the author has noted in various places in the novel. Katharine uses text to better understand her experiences, and to imagine alternate possibilities for her life. She finds in the Candaules story a king who brags about his wife's beauty, inviting other men to consider her body much as her husband has done. Her choice of reading is suggestive because of the ending. In the story, the king dies, and the queen is united with another man. The story not only relates to her life—in a way it becomes part of her own story. Similarly, Madox's favorite novel informs his own life. It helps him explain to the English patient the world of British power structure and Clifton's role in it. It also helps the English patient interpret Madox's rosy descriptions of the expeditions. The texts are woven not only into the novel but into the very lives and stories of the characters. The theme of intertextuality can be summed up well with the English patient's statement, "We are communal histories, communal books."

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