by John Cho
Recently I reread The English Patient after having watched the film version with some annoyance. I should know better than to expect a wholly successful mapping of the many-layered pleasures of a literary novel to a 2.7-hour movie. But having read the book first dooms one to having the rich and malleable world of the novel created in the mind by text and imagination reduced to the two-dimensional, time-limited exactitude of celluloid projections. Telling oneself that the two are entirely different products and should be enjoyed on their separate merits hardly works because of the human fallibility of not being able to forget. And, if you've lived long enough to love, you know that not being able to forget is a far greater burden than forgetfulness. Stories are told because of this universal frailty, and this is how Almásy (the "English" patient) slowly reveals his life to the reader (and the viewer) through fragments of indelible recollections narrated to his nurse.
This story-within-the-story, as well as the other episodes and yarns in the novel, spin their way about the geography of desire. What do I mean by this? Is desire a realm to be surveyed by expeditions and staked out with boundaries? Does desire have mountains and valleys, deserts and oases? Can one build railroads and bridges across the landscape of desire? Are battles fought with rumbling machines, and territories won and lost through acts of bravery and treachery? Can one get lost and disappear into the shifting dunes of desire?
"Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances." Lines from a poem by Robert Hass. Desire requires at least two points, A and B, that are separated by a generalized "distance," which can be space, time, culture, language, vows, a mechanical conundrum. A longs for B, and in between lies the geography of desire, which can be as vast and forbidding as the Sahara, as irreversible as time itself, or as full of terrible potential as an unexploded mine field. Michael Ondaatje pieces together a wondrous collage of the many facets of this geography in his novel. Anthony Minghella's film elects to focus on one of them--Almásy's reaching back in time to his tragic love affair with the wife of his colleague and friend.
The balance in the book, however, is more even with the other major romance, the one between the Canadian nurse, Hana, and Kip, the Sikh defuser of bombs. In the deserted Italian villa where Almásy lies dying under Hana's care at the close of World War II, their desire for each other must traverse across many hidden fault lines of culture, self-mythologies, and history. Ondaatje, a Canadian of Sri Lankan birth, charts their missteps and embraces with a deft authorial hand. The only part that does not ring entirely true is the effect on this intimate landscape by the bombing of Hiroshima that follows the logic of the book's irony rather than the hearts of its characters.
Other ironies abound. Almásy is an explorer who maps out the desert, but ends up despising borders. He loathes ownership, and yet he stakes out regions of his lover's body as his own. Kip, whose job it is to thwart the most powerful desire of them all--a bomb's desire to fulfill the second law of thermodynamics as quickly as possible. Hana, the war nurse, whose father dies in the field for lack of medical help.
The one aspect in which the film excels over the novel is in the characterization of Katharine Clifton, Almásy's married lover played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Because of Minghella's decision to concentrate on this relationship, it had to be more fully developed than as sketched out by Almásy's vignettes scattered throughout the novel. On screen she becomes more than the object and destination of Almásy's desire, i.e., she is given a voice as much as Hana and Kip are given theirs in the novel. One of the best scenes in the film is one that is not in the book. It is an interlude in a Cairo hotel room where Almásy and Katharine are meeting in secret. The lovers' dialogue captures the quicksilver mood changes that pass in real life--nostalgia, teasing, a burst of anger, brooding, tenderness--at intimate moments stolen from the desolation of a proper existence.
* * *
Longing across longitudes. Your absence undermining the horizon. It does not fall off inversely with distance, neither does it decay exponentially with time. And, yes, one can get lost and disappear into the dunes of desire.