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Prose as Poetry in The English Patient
"Never again will a single story be told as though it is only one." John Berger.
The English Patient consists of the stories of its four characters told either by themselves or by Ondaatje. Two stories, the accounts of Kip's military service and the many-layered secrets of the patient, are developed while Hana's and Caravaggio's stories are less involved. However, none of these stories could stand alone. The clash of cultures and changing relationships between the characters provide the texture for the novel. They create a complex web in which everyone becomes entangled.
Ondaatje uses an extremely complex structure and poetic language to further the interweaving of the characters' lives. According to one critic, "The author's four stories are not a story that gathers momentum from start to finish. They are the widening and fading circles on a pond into which history has plunged like a cast stone." (Eder 203).
"The overall structure of the book is circular and allusive, advancing, rounding back on itself, coming to endings that are not necessarily resolutions, and which may be connected to other starting points." (Draper 204). The novel begins en medias reis with the burned English patient already installed in an upper room of the villa. It is near the end of the war. The other doctors and nurses have left leaving only the patient and his nurse. He can only give short, vague descriptions of exploring the Liberian desert. When Kip and Caravaggio enter Ondaatje interlaces flashbacks to give the reader glimpses of their pasts. The novel has third person, but often characters revert to the first person to tell their own story.
The least is learned about Hana's past. Most of what is known about her childhood in Toronto is given by Caravaggio. As the novel progresses the English patient's flashbacks become longer, more detailed and coherent. The farther into the novel the farther into the past he recalls. Ondaatje moves toward the denouement obliquely, avoiding standard conventions of plot and narrative voice.
The English patient's story is the oldest narrative material, the center around which the rest of the book builds. His story lies at the center of the book, just as the patient himself lies at the center of the villa. " The dialog is pften not substantial enough to carry the deep emotions of the characters, so Ondaatje often relies on intierior monologue.
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"I don't like to throw characters into a plot as though it were a raging torrent where they are swept along," Ondaatje said, "What interests me are the complications and nuances of character. Few of my characters are described externally; we see them from the inside out'" (Slopen 48). Ondaatje also creates powerful narrative images that stick with the reader - a boy in a ditch with a bomb, a woman dying in a cave, a small Indian girl tied to a man's bed. At one point the English patient tells Caravaggio about words: "They have a power." (TEP 234).