Hana, a nurse, is working in the garden when she senses a shift in the weather. She enters the house before it starts to pour and walks into a room where a burned man lies on the bed. He turns towards her. Every four days, Hana washes his black, burned body and pours calamine on his wounds. She tries to feed him a plum. The nurse asks the man how he was burned, and he replies that he "fell burning into the desert" from a plane. His plane crashed in the Sand Sea, and nomadic Bedouins saw him stand up naked from the burning plane, on fire. They saved him, but he has no memory of who he is. He knows only that he is English.
At night the man rarely sleeps, so the nurse reads to him from whatever book she finds in the library. If it is cold, she moves into the bed beside him. He remembers his rescue, the black and white silence in which he healed in the company of the Bedouins. He just lay in a hammock, listening to the sounds of their feet, occasionally letting his mouth open to receive whatever food they gave him.
The nurse has found that books are her only refuge in the Villa San Girolamo. The villa was an army hospital at the end of WW II, housing all the wounded Allies who took over this former bastion of the German Army. Now the nurse has enough vegetables planted for them to survive, and a man comes from town occasionally to give them beans and meat in exchange for whatever soap and sheets the nurse can trade from the reserves left in the old hospital.
The villa was abandoned after the Allied victory, but the nurse and the English patient insisted on remaining behind even when the other nurses and patients moved to a safer location in the south. They are alone in this cold stone house where many rooms are inaccessible because of all the fallen rubble. The nurse sleeps in different rooms depending on the temperature or wind, and sometimes in the English patient's room. She is only twenty years old, and seemingly unconcerned with her own safety.
She picks up the notebook that lies next to the English patient's bed - a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has annotated with pages from other books, or his own observations. She begins to read his annotations of the classic text, of the various omnipotent desert winds. She reads about winds that respect no man and can wipe out any sign of humanity, depending on their disposition. She's distracted from her reading by the English patient's eyes on her.
The patient tells her that the Bedouins were keeping him alive for some reason - that he must have been useful to them somehow. He says they assumed he had a skill because his plane had crashed in the desert. Ultimately he says he fulfilled this expectation by accompanying them to a canyon, where the nomads unveiled a stockpile of guns. He was able to tell them just by feeling the guns what their make and gauge was, which helped them match the shells to the guns and reappropriate the discarded weapons as their own.
The Bedouins kept the English Patient blinded most of the time, so that his senses of touch, smell, and hearing became heightened. He traveled with them and was only given sight after dusk where he could finally witness his "captors and saviours." There were no women in the village, and he found desire only when watching a thin Bedouin boy dance alone in the desert.
The English Patient is an impressionistic, almost surrealistic novel, requiring the reader to piece together fragments of consciousness in order to truly discern a narrative line. The first chapter begins and ends with Hana, who at 20 years old is a rather mysterious protagonist. For one thing, we don't even learn her name in the first chapter. She is prone to self-destructive behavior, spends her life taking care of a burned man destined for death, and seems to have little will to live herself. Indeed, her character might make far more sense as a wizened woman of 50 or 60, but at 20 we're left with the prevailing sense that there is a darkness to her that we don't yet know the extent of. As a result we cannot necessarily trust her intentions. On the surface, she seems completely altruistic - an almost sexless creature of God, dedicated to one man whose life is futile and whose memories will take us on our narrative journey. But will she come into her own right as a character, and admit to a past and a future?
The villa makes an appropriate setting for this patchwork of dreams - indeed, Hana remarks that the abandoned house, now home only to her and the English patient, is itself a dream, a puzzle of hallways and corridors leading to dead ends in some directions and dizzying open spaces in others. It is this circuitousness of narrative that becomes a thematic thread for every aspect of the novel - the idea of portals that can open up into any character's consciousness, for us to imbibe memory, feeling, and dreams of the past, present, and future of anyone at any time. The villa itself has its own haunted history that we're reminded of constantly in future chapters - once, it was owned by the German army and used as a stronghold for their base of operations. Then it was taken over by the Allies and used as a war hospital, where Hana worked. Now, it is a haven of neutrality, occupied only by two.
Hana, as we'll see, is obsessed with the beginnings and endings of life, and it is no surprise then that the novel begins simply with her asking the English patient how he came to be burned. The beginning of his story is one of the most famous passages in the novel, invoking the image of the man on fire falling out of the crashing plane. Notice the sensuality of the imagery evoked by the English patient's memory, even though it is steeped in the horrors of the accident. Is this a product of character? Or of Ondaatje's imagistic language, which often seems too poetic to truly capture the grittiness of suffering? As of now, nothing seems particularly "dangerous" in this first chapter - indeed, there is a decided absence of conflict. How long can the narrative sustain without such conflict?
Hana needs her books to survive, and the library becomes her hiding place. Like the English patient retreats into memory, Hana retreats into fantasy. She has given up on life: she has no interest in preserving her own, and ironically has chained herself to preserving a man who seemingly has no reason to live. In a way, perhaps, the two have a mutually projective relationship - Hana experiences death through the patient, and the patient absorbs Hana's youth and life.
The nomadic Bedouins come across as almost ghostly, dreamy creatures. What is repeatedly mentioned is their silence - and the absence of women, as if they were direct descendants of divinity, without human legacy or tendencies. They take care of him and transport him from place to place, and the patient cannot understand why - until, that is, he realizes that it is for a most pragmatic concern. They want him to teach them about guns. Suddenly the dream of the nomads - their omnipotent mystery - crumbles in the way of pragmatism and war. The lack of women becomes a liability, a symbol of the male penchant for belligerence. It is only when the English patient sees a thin, androgynous boy dancing alone in the moonlight that his sexual desire is reawakened - for in the boy he sees nascent mystery once more, sensual pleasure that has yet to be corrupted.