[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Emery contrasts the gendered differences of attitudes toward personal identity and ownership in The English Patient and its film adaptation.]
Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient and the 1996 Anthony Minghella film that was adapted from it deal with how we as individuals identify ourselves and how we identify others. What names do we ascribe to people, and what boundaries do those names create in our lives? These contemporary themes are explored against the backdrop of the years leading up to and following the Second World War, where the wrong name could prove to be very dangerous when spoken in the wrong land. Almasy insists on naming and describing Katharine in terms of the desert, while she firmly defines herself by her "Britishness." As Count Almasy loses Katharine by misnaming her, we see the tragic effect of his possessive love of a woman unwilling to compromise her own definition of herself.
Count Lazlo de Almasy, as the Hungarian who hungers for the British and married Katharine Clifton, dismisses all boundaries: national, societal, and patriarchal. He often speaks of his disdain for the restrictions imposed by nations and family names. "I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states" (Ondaatje 138). Almasy goes onto describe his desire to do away with his own name in the presence of the desert: "I didn't want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert" (139). Almasy loses himself in the desert, which he feels is a holy place, which can never be owned or named:
The desert could not be claimed or owned--it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battled and treaties quilted Europe and the East ... It was a place of faith. We disappeared into the landscape.(138-39)
Despite feeling this way. Almasy is on a mapping expedition, which defines boundaries and lines of ownership. It is perhaps his inability to reconcile these two attitudes that lead to his crimes later in the novel. Almasy shifts nationalities throughout the course of the story: he is originally Hungarian, but is thought at some times to be British, at other times, German. He speaks several languages; he cares not for loyalty to country, his one desire being to map the desert that so captivates him. "I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. By the time the war had arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation" (139). He had no desire to possess anything or to ally himself with anyone at this point in his life, but this changes when he meets Katharine Clifton.
Katharine Clifton first meets Count Almasy in the desert, as her husband, Geoffery, joins the exploration team. The Count...