Maps in Michael Ondaatje's the English Patient

By Abu Baker, Ahmad M. S. | Nebula, March-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Maps in Michael Ondaatje's the English Patient


Abu Baker, Ahmad M. S., Nebula


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 power and correspondence with the Geographical Society. On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever. (p.141)

Introduction

The English Patient is a novel which richly encapsulates the past within its folds. The novel refers to Almasy's book of Herodotus The Histories which, the narrator notes, is "twice its original thickness" (pp.94-95). Almasy "added to [it], cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations--so they all are cradled within the text of Herodotus" (p.16). It was "his commonplace book" which contained "other fragments--maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books" (p.96). Ondaatje's novel is similar in its structure to Almasy's book. He takes "fragments" and "paragraphs cut out of other books" and includes them in his novel. The novel is so rich with intertextuality including references to portraits, statues, myths, Christian imagery, and desert images. Ondaatje's novel is swollen with these different images just like Almasy's common place book is swollen to twice its original thickness.

In one scene, Hana fixes the steps in a staircase in the villa. "The staircase had lost its lower steps during the fire that was set before the soldiers left." She brought "twenty books and nailed them to the floor and then onto each other, in this way rebuilding the two lowest steps" (p.13). Hana's use of the books to fix the stairs parallels the readers' and critics' attempt to "nail" all the different books and images Ondaatje refers to in his novel to reach, as if climbing a staircase, into the 'room' where knowledge is stored. Ondaatje leaves clues to the thematic importance of some references to help his readers dig, like archaeologists, into the history of this reference or that. For instance, while the book of Kim lay on Hana's lap, "she realized that ... she had been looking at the porousness of the paper, the crease at the corner of page 17 which someone has folded as a mark"(p.7, my italics). The importance of this book is revealed later, upon the arrival of Kip.

In The English Patient the emphasis on the importance of maps is evident. People, books, faith, and works of art are all reduced to maps, to their skeletal structure. This reduction is a form of deconstruction similar to the deconstruction of bombs in the novel. Almasy is considered a traitor for giving the Germans the desert maps. His 'treason' justifies the novel's preoccupation with maps. The gravity of his 'crime' is evident in the following analysis which highlights the importance of maps.

Maps, Colonization, and Identity

Maps, as a form of knowledge, give power to those who have them. Almasy claims that his ability to draw maps motivated the Bedouins to save him. He explains that "[t]he bedouin were keeping me alive for a reason. I was useful, you see.... I am a man who can recognize an unnamed town by its skeletal shape on a map" (p.18). The Bedouins try to make use of Almasy's vast reservoir of information. "For some he draws maps that go beyond their own boundaries and for other tribes too he explains the mechanics of guns" (p.22). Almasy claims that he has "information like a sea" in him, and that he "knew maps of the sea floor, maps that depict weaknesses in the shield of the earth, charts painted on skin that contain the various routes of the Crusades" (p.18, my italics). These maps have the power of great destruction since they depict "weaknesses in the shield of earth". These "weaknesses" would be exploited to create a destructive earthquake or to erupt a volcano in the enemy's land.

Heble observes Ondaatje based his character of Almasy on that of a real person. …

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