Richard Hillary and Ondaatje's The English Patient

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Author: Jeffrey Meyers
Date: Sept. 2010
From: Notes on Contemporary Literature(Vol. 40, Issue 4)
Publisher: Notes on Contemporary Literature
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,056 words

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The Last Enemy (1942), a war memoir by Richard Hillary--the most famous World War II flyer, author and English patient--is not mentioned among the thirteen books in the Acknowledgments of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992). (Hemingway admired Hillary's instant classic--whose title comes from I Corinthians 15:26 and alludes to death--and included two chapters in his popular anthology Men at War, also 1942). Hillary, an exceptionally handsome Australian-born Oxford graduate, was shot down by a German Messerschmitt, off the Kentish coast and during the Battle of Britain, on September 3, 1940. Trapped and roasted by the fire in his blazing cockpit, he managed to bail out and was rescued, but with his face and hands horribly scorched.

The novelist Francis King, Hillary's younger contemporary at Shrewsbury School and at Oxford, fictionalized their meeting during the war. Pushed in a wheelchair, the character based on Hillary despairingly says, "Well, you can see the sort of state I'm in. No more bloody use. Shot down." The narrator of the story then gives a lurid description of how the invalid's grotesquely disfigured body affected other people: "I looked down at the cruelly distorted hands and then up into the even more cruelly distorted face.... [His hands] were like the talons, stiff and striated with purple and black, of some dead bird of prey. I took in the face. One side was crimson and hideously rucked up and there was a pink celluloid eye-patch over the eye" (Francis King, "Mouse," The Sunlight on the Garden [London: Arcadia, 2005]: 7, 14, 6).

Hillary was sliced up in many gruesome...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A238833988