On the Inside, Looking In
HONG KONG – “She is a shell-shocked nurse and he is a terminal burn victim,” I explain to my class. “They’re staying in a ruined villa in a war-torn countryside. The first person to find them there has had his thumbs amputated by the Nazis. The second one has lost his adopted family to a bomb.”
I pause, not for effect, but to suck in air. “Damaged people in a damaged place.
Extraordinary behaviour in an out-of-the-ordinary time. It’s the world of this novel,” I add, now gasping for breath, “and it’s the world we’re going to explore over the next five weeks.”
At this point I stop and push the rim of the mask below my nose. Sweat trickles down my cheeks, gluing fabric to skin.
Late April in a classroom at Hong Kong University. I am introducing a continuingeducation course I have prepared called “The Poet’s Progress: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.” The 12 adults who have enrolled sit before me. They all wear surgical masks as well.
The rule on this is clear. The university, shut down at the height of the crisis over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in late March, has recently reopened. A pamphlet from the vice-chancellor’s office advises teachers and students alike to wash frequently and avoid shaking hands. The document also bars anyone from entering a classroom without a mask. At the outset of my first session, an A/V person rigs up an overhead projector. It shines those rules onto the blackboard.
The course is a guilty pleasure. I’ve returned regularly to The English Patient since it was first published in 1992. As a novelist, Ondaatje appears to operate largely by instinct. His narrative strategies and the flow of his ideas are unorthodox and original. But with each rereading, my vow to study how the book actually works has dissolved before the narcotic allure of its prose.
This reading will be different. The class will force me to make that study under circumstances that are strange but somehow fitting. Hong Kong is experiencing conditions akin to wartime.
Daily life has been suspended. Schools are all closed and most public events cancelled.
Hotels are deserted and restaurants forlorn. The privileged have long since fled for safer ground and everyone else walks around dressed as though they are already infected.
This first class marks my debut behind a surgical mask. I don’t have atypical pneumonia and am at minimal risk of contracting it. I’m also of the minority opinion that the masks are emblematic of how Hong Kongers have allowed panic to hold their city, and their lives, hostage. Still, I knew I would be obliged to wear one to teach the course, and should have practised.
Instead, I sputter and gag and try ingesting sips of water through fabric for three hours. At one stage I retreat to the open door, deciding that if I lecture from the corridor I won’t be breaking any rules.
“Almasy has no name until much later in the book,” I shout, the mask momentarily untied. “He’s simply ‘the English patient’ or ‘the burned man.’ Hana is referred to as ‘the nurse,’ and Caravaggio is ‘the man with the bandaged hands.” Even Kip starts out as ‘the sapper.’ Ondaatje is slow to afix his characters with personal identities. They’re almost anonymous, almost . . . Can any of you hear me?”
No one replies. The class, I suddenly realize, is equally anonymous. The masks blur features, and I don’t really know what any of the students look like.
“At least now you’ll recognize me on the street,” I say, refasten the mask and re-enter the room.
It would help if I could read their expressions. The eyes alone, I am discovering, are not enough, especially placid Asian gazes. Hong Kong Chinese also tend to speak English softly and without stresses. The few responses I manage to elicit sound like murmurs heard through motel walls.
When a man with teardrop eyes and a high forehead repeats a comment, I walk to where he sits and cock my head. “Patients,” he says, “are always anonymous to the doctors who heal them.”
The class improves from there. “This course is going to be interesting,” I say at the end of the night. “Promise.”
A few students unmask in the hallway afterward. We introduce ourselves properly. “I feel terrible,” I admit to them. “Sick, almost.”
They are full of suggestions, if not sympathy.
“Speak with less emphasis,” a woman advises.
“Shave before class,” a man says, reminding me of how often I scratched my cheeks.
“Buy a better-quality mask,” another student offers.
The course does prove interesting, I think. A major attraction to teaching The English Patient is its myriad-mindedness. The novel is a rattle bag of learning opportunities.
During the five weeks, we pour over maps of Italy and North Africa and read about Rommel and the desert explorers. I bring in excerpts from Herodotus and Kipling and offer potted histories of the Raj and postcolonialism. We also discuss Canada, which Hana calls “an even newer country” and where Caravaggio, a thief from Toronto, once robbed a house belonging to an Indian family, and wound up wearing a sarong.
Privately, I do finally make my study. The deep thrill of the book, I conclude, lies in Ondaatje’s transgressive intellect. The man cannot leave a cultural assumption unturned.
The novel questions conventional notions of heroism and romance, nationhood and war, the necessary triumph of public good over private need, even how literary characters should be depicted and stories told. The defiance is genial and often elliptical, but it is always there, fuelling the gorgeous prose and providing the narrative its singular coherence.
The course has an essay requirement. I hand out a list of topics, which students complain are too political. Agreeing with them, I add three more. One is about love in the novel, the other concerns the film adaptation. The third runs as follows: The English Patient suggests that a culture can be damaged and even sick. Ondaatje is thinking about Europe at the end of the Second World War. Could the same analysis be applied to Hong Kong right now?