The English Patient

The English Patient Almasy and the Desert

Michael Ondaatje has a penchant for blending documentary and fiction, and for maintaining historical accuracy in his representation of time and place. In The English Patient, we see this attention to detail primarily in his discussion of the history of the desert. Over the course of the novel, Almasy leads us through this brief history of Western interest in the Libyan desert.

Herodotus was the first to study the desert in The Histories, which charted the different types of wind. Herodotus' history of the winds is at once compelling and humorous - he lists wind like the aajej, the winds in southern Morocco, which the local dwellers defended themselves against with knives; the africo, which is so strong, it blows into Rome on occasion; even a wind called the datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance. The gusto with which Almasy documents each of the winds in Herodotus' history bolsters our sense of his character as an information-gatherer. He is obsessed with facts - knowing, learning, acquiring - not so much out of curiosity, but more because he believes (at least initially) that it is the purpose of life.

After Herodotus, says Almasy, the Western world demonstrated little interest in the desert for hundreds of years. For over 2300 years, there was an "averting of eyes," a yawning chasm of silence. In the 1800s, the desert became popular amongst "river seekers," before finally becoming a center of renewed fascination in the 1920s. This interest manifested largely through privately funded expeditions that usually ended with prestigious lectures at the Geographical Society in London at Kensington Gore. Indeed, Almasy expresses a desire to map the desert that recalls how modern people wish to climb Everest - for the challenge, because of its novelty, and because it is a grand way to show off. Still, these expeditions required years of preparation, research, and fundraising, and the glamour of the expedition fad didn't disguise the fact that many people died. Eventually the desert lost all glamour when it became a theater of WWII in 1939.

Almasy calls himself a new breed in those WWII years - part of the Desert Europeans, transplanted from Europe to the desert and forced by circumstances to become more familiar with the desert than they even were with their homeland. The desert becomes his new home, and he becomes a master of its elements, its volatility, and its equanimity. After the war, the West again lost interest in the desert. And thus Almasy thinks of himself as a man without a homeland: he forsook his home for war, and war for the desert, and cannot even remember all the political associations of "Almasy" - hence his willingness to disown the name Caravaggio gave him. He thinks of himself only as a man of the desert.