The English Patient: Chapter 1 Continued

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Summary – Chapter One continued

The narrative switches back to the men who saved the patient and to when they unwrapped the mask of herbs from his face. At this time, he thought of his favourite garden, which is at Kew. The men taught him to raise his arms and he was carried on a palanquin of felt and branches.
One day at twilight he heard a ‘glassy sound’ and saw a man wearing a giant yoke with hundreds of small bottles hung on different lengths of string and wire. This man was known on the camel route ‘from the Sudan north to Giza’ and traded in spices and liquid. He crouched by the patient and rubbed a paste of ground peacock bone on his rib cage and this is described as ‘the most potent healer of skin’.
The narrative moves forward to the present and the damaged library is described. The German army had mined many of the houses as they retreated and so most rooms that are not needed are sealed for safety. When the nurse goes in the library, she knows of this danger but does so anyway. She takes down The Last of the Mohicans and walks out backwards in her own steps for safety and as part of a private game. She then closes the door and replaces the seal of warning.
In the patient’s room, she sits down and on opening the book she finds the pages are joined together ‘in a stiff wave’, and she is compared to Robinson Crusoe finding a drowned book.
During the war, this town had been besieged for more than a month, and this villa, which was formerly a nunnery, had been ‘the last stronghold of the German army’. When they left, the Allies took over and turned it into a hospital. She and the Englishman insisted on staying when the others left for the south (and for safer locations). There are few beds left and the nurse sleeps in different locations depending on the temperature, wind or light. It is also revealed that she is twenty years old.
Despite brigands visiting the area, she feels safe here, as ‘half adult and half child’. After what has happened to her during the war, she will not carry out duties again ‘for the greater good’ and will only care for the burned patient. (It is also mentioned that she uses a six-foot crucifix as a scarecrow). At night, the burned man hears ‘a faint shudder in the building’ and turns up his hearing aid to catch the noise.
She looks at his notebook. It is a copy of The History by Herodotus and he brought it through the fire. He has added to it by writing in it and by gluing in pages from other books. She reads his writing where he talks about different winds; about permanent ones and others less constant.
The narrative moves to him talking to her, and he tells her the Bedouin were keeping him alive for a reason. He explains how he has ‘information like a sea’ in him, such as being able to recognize unnamed towns on a map. Therefore, he knew this place before he crashed there, as well as the customs of the nomads and the beliefs of the different tribes.
He travelled with them for five days in darkness with a hood over his face. When they reached a canyon, the temperature dropped and they joined the rest of the tribe. He was brought there to ‘translate’ the guns and to explain them. The weapons were from different countries and periods and he calls it ‘a museum in the desert’. His hand was placed into boxes of cartridges and he was then moved to the guns to choose which to load. He compares this to a game he played as a child with his aunt and had to remember which cards had been turned over. The men cheered when the guns fired.
His knowledge was passed around. For some people he drew maps and for others he explained the mechanics of guns. He also remembers a boy dancing, and how he looked desirable in the light. He then wonders if it was all invented or if it was a dream.
This chapter finishes with a description of the nurse standing at the sink. We are told she has removed all the mirrors and placed them in an empty room.
Analysis – Chapter One continued.
The patient’s knowledge of the deserts, people and guns is revealed here as he tells the nurse (Hana) about his rescue. His understanding makes him a valuable commodity in this instance and is used to identify the various guns and cartridges. If one takes a step back from the character, it is possible to interpret the patient as a device for exploring how knowledge can be exploited in times of war. This point is expanded upon later when it is revealed he worked as a ‘spy helper’ for the Germans and on a broader level that questions the advancement in technology that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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