[(essay date June 2004) In the essay below, Haswell and Edwards analyze The English Patient with regard to ancient Western literary traditions, exploring the significance of the role of the narrator in the novel and the connection between the "English" patient's narration and authorial voice in the novel.]
According to the desire of my heart I have come forth from the Island of Nesersert, and I have extinguished the fire ...Give thou unto me my mouth that I may speak with it. I guide my heart at its season of flame and of night.--E. A. Wallis Budge, The Papyrus of Ani: The Book of the Dead
Countisbury and Area. Mapped by R. Fones. Drawn by desire of Mr. James Halliday.--Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Master of reflexive narrative, Michael Ondaatje has emerged as a modern-day Chaucer who reveals the secret lives of his characters in their acts of storytelling. But as Roland Barthes has argued, storytelling also reveals readers or, more correctly, "undoes" them through the act of decoding texts. In Peter Brooks's terms, the reader is "virtually a text, a composite of all that he [or she] has read, or heard read, or imagined as written" (19). What animates us in this undoing of readers, Brooks continues, is desire: "the passion for meaning and the passion of meaning" (19). In Ondaatje's The English Patient, such desire is assuaged and meaning captured only at the end of the novel when readers recognize the distinct identity of the speaker--not of the enigmatic and mysterious patient, but of Ondaatje's Narrator.
Despite the voluminous scholarship on The English Patient, little has been said about Ondaatje's Narrator. Some critics have even referred to Ondaatje as "the tearer" (Heble 110), arguing that his novels are as much about Ondaatje as about his characters.1 Tom Peignoir, in fact, makes no mention of the Narrator, referring instead to Herodotus as a "silent fifth" character (81). But it is Ondaatje's Narrator who is the fifth presence--relatively silent, but not entirely so. Since Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, it has been rudimentary to distinguish between the real author (the "real man") and the implied author ("the inferred, ideal, literary, created version") as well as between the implied author and the narrator (74-75). So it seems neither radical nor problematic to read Ondaatje's Narrator as "a demonstrable, recognizable entity immanent to the narrative itself" (Cat man 33) as opposed to the novel's implied author revealed in the "design of the whole" (148).
However, The English Patient reflexively complicates this binary distinction between implied author and Narrator by incorporating the stories of both character-narrators and author-narrators, the latter filtered through the former. That is, readers are hosted not only by the Narrator's story, roughly coterminous with the pages of the novel, but also by oral stories within that written story, stories told by one character to another. Characters, in turn, are reading novels told by other narrators and penned by authors such as Kipling and Herodotus. How do...