By Air, Earth, and Sea: The Constitution of Identity in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

Andy Verboom


The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize in 1992, is Michael Ondaatje’s most famous novel. Set at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the end of the British Empire, it tells the story of a group of war-damaged people who together take refuge in an abandoned Italian villa to study and recover from their wounds, or die from them. War is a time of stark divisions among nations and their citizens, but as Andrew Verboom’s paper shows with great delicacy and imaginative insight, the world of The English Patient is one that refuses to accept either the absolute nature of those differences or the possibility of their easy abandonment. As Verboom argues by very skillfully moving between Ondatje’s novel and the much more recent work of philosophers such as Anthony Appiah, we enter a state of political and imaginative peril both when we attempt to erase nations and when we passionately embrace them. “Propinquity” – the similarity between things unexpectedly revealed by spatial proximity – is a key concept in The English Patient, and Verboom uses it to understand the flawed “identity projects” undertaken by the novel’s main characters, arguing that in the end propinquity is as much a political philosophy as a form of perceptual magic.

-Dr. Alice Brittan

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