Identity Crisis in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient Lerzan G?ltekin Atillm University in Ankara, Turkey lerzan_gultekin@atilim. edu. tr Abstract The aim of this paper is to analyze identity crisis in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient from a postcolonial perspective through the concept of nationalism and national identity, emphasizing cultural, psychological and physical displacement due to colonization, travelling, exploration and space / place (cartography), referring to the theories and views of Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabba, Franz Fanon, Edward Said, and so on.
The paper will mainly focus on the erasure of the national identities and selves of a group of European explorers, scientists and spies, including the colonized Kip, an Indian, serving as a bomb defuser in the British Army. Even though these scientists’ mission is to map the desert, they can hardly achieve it. The desert is uncontrollable and unreliable because of sand storms. Its surface changes rapidly and one can be lost forever.
In other words, the desert is the metaphor of their unreliable national identities that are fragmented and varied because of their traumatic personal xperiences in this alien landscape and culture. The paper will emphasize the fragility of identities and selves even for those who represent European civilization and Imperial Rule as hegemonic powers together with the colonized Kip who is shaped by these powers as a hybrid identity.
Key Words: hybridity, nationalism, national identity, postnationalism, space / place The English Patient is a novel that seeks to explore the problem of identity and displacement, experienced both by colonizer and colonized. As known, identity is a social construct and largely determined by the relationship between self and other. It is through our sense of identity that we identify ourselves as members of various ethnic groups or nations as well as social classes which provide us with a sense of belonging.
Likewise, nations are communities which provide a sense of belonging through the individual’s feeling of connectedness to his or her fellow men. In other words, individuals think that they are a part of one collective body, namely, a community known as nation, which is in fact an idea, defined by Benedict Anderson as “an imagined political community’ (6). The survival of nations depend upon nvention and performance of traditions, histories, symbols which help people sustain their identity.
However, it mostly depends on traditions and narration of history, which are central elements. Therefore, national history is important in the sense that it narrates the past as a common experience that belongs to a community. It creates one particular version of the past and identity to constitue a common past and a collective identity of any given community. In other words, nations are “imaginary communities,” to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, and nationalism is based on the very concept of a unified imaginary community.
Furthermore, nations shared territory which they believe they own and therefore have the right to separate from other peoples’ land by means of borders. As an idea, scholars usually agree that it is Western in origin, that it came into existence with the development of Western capitalism, industrialization and colonial expansion, which paved the way for imperialism. However, starting with the 90s, nationalism, nation and national identity began to lose their significance as the world was becoming increasingly international, particularly after the period of decolonization.
The concept of nation / nationalism nd national identity as Western ideas stimulated colonized peoples to develop their own sense of nationalism and national identity against the colonial, national identity of the West. However, this anticolonial nationalism could not provide the colonised peoples with a sense of homogeneous national unity due to the diversity of ethnic groups within them, particularly because the elite nationalist rule neglected the subaltern masses and privileged the elite over the subaltern, which turned nationalism into a rule of elite dominations, as argued by Frantz Fanon in his The Wretched of the Earth.
Hence, there emerged from Western capitalism and colonization the concepts of nation and nationalism as indispensible components of imperialist expansion, but failing to bring national liberation to the heterogeneous groups of people in the former colonies despite their opposition to imperialist domination as anticolonial nationalism. Be it colonial or anti-colonial, both are essentialist and racist in the sense that they supported the ruling elite while ignoring the less privileged ethnic groups.
The English Patient (hereafter will be cited as EP) is a novel that questions he nation and nationalism that shape identities through colonial and anti-colonial nationalisms. The characters are all exiles from their homeland who have gathered together at the Villa San Girolamo at the end of World War II. Hana is a Canadian nurse, who volunteered for war service and who has to have an abortion because the father of her unborn child has been killed.
Furthermore, she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the news of her father’s death by burns and her continous dealing with the wounded and the dying. As the Canadian Infantry Division ontinues to advance in Italy, she stays behind at the villa to nurse a dying burnt man who is called the ‘English patient’. The third member of the villa other than these two is Kip, a Sikh, who is a sapper in the British army and finally, Caravaggio, the thief, an Italian-Canadian who was a friend of Hana’s father.
The novel’s central figure is the English patient whose identity is already erased as he is burnt beyond recognition. In fact, he is the Hungarian Court Ladislaus de Almasy, a desert explorer who helped the Germans navigate the deserts. Although his duty is to delineate, name and in a ense possess the unmapped desert, which is a vast territory, in the end his own identity, which is the map of his own features, has been erased and he is known only as the ‘English patient’.
In fact, the inhabitants of the Villa are all diplaced because they are exiles who have found new identities in a place other than their homeland. In a sense, they formed a new community in the Villa, which is like Eden, isolated from the outside world of war and violence. Since the novel questions colonial and colonial hierarchies, particularly the imperial conception of space/place through the apping of the desert, which is an instrument of colonial domination, and the desert’s elusiveness because of its vastness and uncontrollable sand storms.
In fact, mapping a space means to name it and possess it as it becomes a place as seized territory, which will help invaders, explorers and traders to realize their plans and aspirations. Almasy is aware of the fact that mapping is a form of knowledge for power and domination: The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of ower and correspondence with the Geographical Society.