The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.
“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient“
Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:
From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. […] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)
Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.
In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?
Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton. Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.
On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.
Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.
Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.
Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásy says, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.
Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.
Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.
1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.
2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).