[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Dawson considers the relationship between names and identity in The English Patient, stressing the ways in which Ondaatje's exploration of his characters's identities evokes a sense of bearing witness in readers.]
Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient explores the relationships among four people who inhabit a deserted villa in Italy towards the end of World War II. One of them is identified only as "the English patient." Following the death of his lover and an airplane accident that has left him burned beyond recognition, the traumatized patient claims to have forgotten his identity and suggests that he does not remember which side he fought for in the war. Although the patient contends that he "could have been, for all he knew, the enemy he had been fighting from the air" (6), at least one of the other characters suspects that he feigns memory loss in an attempt to avoid recriminations for his wartime actions. Certainly, there is textual evidence that the patient is, as his housemate suspects, Count Ladislaus de Almásy, a Hungarian aristocrat accused of spying for the Germans in North Africa. But the patient does not recognize this name as his own. For the most part, he refers to Almásy in the third person and offers elliptical personal narratives that are largely uncontextualized and thus frustrate any attempts to secure his "true" identity or expose his false one.1 Because the patient does not offer a coherent self-explanatory narrative, the young Canadian nurse, the Italian-Canadian thief, and the Indian sapper who also live in or around the villa project a variety of identities onto his unrecognizable body, reconstituting him in the image of their own loved ones and adversaries. At the same time as these three emotionally scarred individuals project identities onto the patient, they also attempt to elicit a confession of imposture from him in hopes that his admission of mistaken identity will affirm the possibility of an integrated, "properly" identified subject, and will allow them to reconceive of themselves as such.
The idea of imposture is, however, as untenable as it is socially efficacious. It is efficacious because it constitutes the "self" as a proprietary entity which can be conceived of as the rightful owner of an identity that is quantifiable, legislatible, and disciplinary. But it is untenable insofar as it rests upon the expectation that the subject is stable, continuous, fully self-cognizant, and consequently capable of assuming a "truth" value. By undermining the truth-based assumptions that imposture requires and choosing, instead, to preserve the ambiguities surrounding the identity of his consistently inconsistent protagonist, Michael Ondaatje confounds attempts to characterize his protagonist as an imposter. In doing so, he suggests that the "truth" about the patient's identity cannot emerge referentially, as name-calling or confession. If indeed such a "truth" can be discerned, it must emerge from an exchange that allows for both the impossibility and the necessity of confronting that which is never wholly available for the telling.