The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of my favorite novels/films. If you know me well, this will not be a surprise at all. The story talks about identity, memory, belonging, longing and geography, subjects that I used to teach in my Cultural Studies course. The particular geography that the book describes so vivaciously is the Sahara desert. Indeed, the desert has unique characteristics that make for a fertile narrative: it is fluid, changing and full of yearning. It lays bare the precariousness of the lines in the map as it constantly defies demarcations and exactitude.
The setting is such an important narrative element in The English Patient that it becomes its main theme. Much as the English patient’s identity is hard to be established, much as his love affair with Katherine can neither be defined by convention nor recovered by a failing memory, much of what is happening in a post World War II Europe is precarious, nebulous and unstable, so is the geography of the desert. And so is the geography of human beings, for that matter, particularly the ones that feel displaced and foreign, like myself.
Truth be said: I have always been obsessed by the desert. In my imagination, the desert was almost always associated with the East and with “other” civilizations that were radically different from my own. In other words, I was fascinated by its exoticism. The desert represented luxurious, exotic and sultry lands that spoke foreign languages that I could not understand. The desert marked my difference and I marveled at the fact that I could never fully grasp it.
Now I call the desert home. I live in the heart of the Sonoran desert in Arizona, Southwestern United States. Granted, Arizona couldn’t be more different from the deserts that inhabited my imagination. First of all, it is located in the most capitalist country of the Western world. The United States doesn’t exactly rate high on my (or on anybody’s) exotic list. I speak the language well, I am well acquainted with the culture and literature. I used to teach American literature and culture in my country, for what is worth! But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would end up living in Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran desert. It has been a surprising experience in all senses. A love-hate relationship, let me admit. While Arizona is strikingly beautiful and alive with colors and sunsets, it has also become a symbolical desert of sorts for me, a space where I felt I could not continue to grow as an individual. Gradually, I felt more and more shortchanged and crippled by loneliness and fear. I felt that I lost much more than I gained.
But the nature of human beings is to be resilient. It has taken longer than I feel comfortable sharing with you here, but I have been more at peace with Arizona lately. I have learned to be a nobody, a kind of ghost. Not to have family or friends. I have learned to accept and occasionally even rejoice in my foreignness.
But I digress…to go back to the title, yes, I do understand the sadness of geography that Ondaatje describes so graphically in The English Patient. After all, this sadness is permanently sketched in my skin, like a tattoo. Only that the beautiful Sonoran desert is not to blame.
More on that soon.
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