Textual hauntings: narrating history, memory, and silence in The English Patient

Citation metadata

Author: Amy Novak
Date: Summer 2004
From: Studies in the Novel(Vol. 36, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,143 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :
"[T]rauma opens up and challenges us to a new kind of listening, the witnessing, precisely, of impossibility." --Cathy Caruth

In 1996, Anthony Minghella's cinematic adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient enthralls movie-goers with its romantic tale of a desert explorer's tragic love affair at the commencement of World War II. The following year the success of this film, particularly this character, in capturing the cultural imagination of at least its US audience is evident when it wins nine Academy Awards. In the many reviews and discussions surrounding both Minghella's film and Ondaatje's book, primary emphasis is given to its title character. For example, Rufus Cook, in "Being and Representation in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient," describes the patient as "the character who has most completely developed his human potentialities" (45). Whether it is due to the romantic portrayal of the patient (in both his cinematic and literary forms), or the fact that he is the titlular character, most readings of this text accept the patient's epistemology as the center around which the book moves. (1) But is it? The primary evidence for these claims is the provocative challenge the patient's narrative of memory poses to the general concept of history. But, what if we questioned these assumptions and responses to the patient more rigorously? What might we uncover instead? What more could we learn about the telling of history? Arguably, The English Patient confronts the reader not just with the experience of personal trauma, but also with the trauma of European History-with the silenced voices erased from the narrative of the past, represented particularly in the character of Kip. By first reading the politics of the patient's narrative of memory, this essay then examines how the ghosts that lie in the margins of this narrative create a textual haunting that raises questions about any narration of cultural trauma. Theorizing what I call a "spectral narrative economy," I analyze how Ondaatje's novel contributes to contemporary debates on the nature of history and historiography by asking for the present to reconsider the text of history from the place of silence.

A Narration of Memory

Traumatized by the past, the characters of this novel seek to cope with their traumatic experience by drawing the event into a narrative space that will contain and position the past. In particularly, it is the patient's conjuring of memory that organizes the narrative of the text as "he whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died" (4). This passage figures the dynamics of the text's narrative movement. The patient's remembering propels the narrative and the other characters with him "into the well of memory." Hence, his remembering functions at two levels in the novel: structuring his own discourse in the story, as well as the narrative as a whole. The circular and repetitious movement of his recounting is replicated at the level...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A119850837