'Only Re-Connect': Temporary Pacts in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

Citation metadata

Author: Jeanne Delbaere
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,848 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 1996) In the essay below, Delbaere highlights the tension between personal and public spheres in The English Patient, arguing that Ondaatje's use of postmodern techniques allows him to find connections between seemingly disparate cultural traditions.]

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves [...]. I believe in such cartography--to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.1

For several decades now postmodernism with its emphasis on disconnection has relegated to the background E. M. Forster's famous motto. So, too, has early post-colonialism with its sharp polarizations into centre and margin, victims and victimizers. It seems, however, that in recent years international fiction in English has been aiming at creating a new unified perspective. After the challenge to realism and the insistence on the mind's capacity to construct worlds of its own, after the rejection of the master-narratives of the West and their "alter-native" revisions, after the substitution of new-blooded energetic margins for the powerful political centres, a new integrative paradigm is now emerging which rather focuses on the interfaces between disparate fields--hybridized sites of imaginative transformation where "temporary pacts" can be entered into even though "no promise of solution or victory" (p. 71) can be expected. The political and historical concerns of post-colonial writing are reinterpreted in a visionary mode where opposites are again reconciled as they were by the modernists, though on a larger-than-social or national scale which takes in its sweep the whole of what Ondaatje calls "our communal histories, communal books" (p. 261).

As in the traditional mystical experience the way to this new integration and new planetary identity goes through exile, ascesis, madness, silence, and dissolution of self: "It is about to begin. All my life till now has been wasted. I had to enter the silence to find a password that would release me from my own life," the poet says in David Malouf's An Imaginary Life.2 The new cartography of consciousness does indeed begin with a "tabula rasa," a rejection of all that divides (gender, history, nation, race), or a passage through the blank spaces of the communal book of nature (desert, bush, steppes, rainforest) where the perspective is no longer exclusively anthropocentric, where time is stretched to embrace all times, where what is found is immediately recognized as familiar because belonging to the body, nature, or the collective imaginative experience--i.e. to the shared heritage of all living creatures. One thinks of the little wild poppy in An Imaginary Life, the chewed dates in The English Patient, the rock paintings...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100084231