[(essay date summer 1994) In this essay, de Zepetnek analyzes The English Patient from a postmodern perspective, focusing on Ondaatje's use of marginal figures to elucidate the fullness and complexity of the human experience.]
In "Michael Ondaatje and the Problem of History," Ajay Heble observes that "Ondaatje has repeatedly been engaged in an attempt to incorporate marginal figures out of the historical past into a non-historical genre" (97). While this observation refers to Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970) and Coming through Slaughter (1976), it applies to The English Patient as well. Several characters in The English Patient are indeed such "marginal figures out of the historical past." Ondaatje's method of using "marginal figures" from history does not, however, make his prose works "historical" in any sense of the word. On the contrary, his postmodern use of the historical produces poetic fiction that manages history, as Heble observes:
The force of Ondaatje's texts thus resides in their ability to articulate a tension between ... an insistence on what Ondaatje calls "the truth of fiction"--on his imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been--and ... a suspicion that he cannot write about the past without ultimately writing a kind of autobiography.(98)
The English Patient is a postmodern text that succeeds in representing life--underlining its fullness, complicatedness, inexplicability, fragmentation, and subtextual richness, which cannot be represented by either traditional uses or a linear (fictional) narrative of historical "facts."1 Thus, an interpretation of the interrelation between the historical and the perception of the other (alterité) may be useful for the readers of Ondaatje's work. In any such interpretation, the author's notions of historicity--the historical data behind the fiction--and of the other in the parameters of history and fiction should be considered.
Ondaatje's concern with the historicity of his novel is also evident on a different level. After I had begun to plan this article and to research the secondary literature, I wrote a letter to Ondaatje asking him about his knowledge of the "English patient," Almásy. Ondaatje explained to me during two telephone calls in 1993 that, beyond the sources he cites in his acknowledgements in The English Patient (304-06), he was unaware of the history of any of the characters in his novel. He was unfamiliar with the questions concerning Almásy in Hungarian and German sources, and he did not know that Lady Clayton East Clayton died in a plane crash one year after her husband's death.
I detect a specifically English-Canadian literary configuration in The English Patient, and in other works by Ondaatje, similar to many English-Canadian novels of the nineteenth century. The English Patient, with its added dimension of the marginal historical fact fictionalized in a specific manner, strengthens the tenet that "truth is stranger than fiction" may be an English-Canadian literary subtext.2
Almásy, the Hungarian aristocrat and officer-spy in The English Patient, is depicted as the other. We do not know for a...