Flashbacks, Point of View, and Grid Work
in The English Patient

© 2013 by Robert J Ray

The English Patient has a zigzag structure that slides between past and present, between desert and Villa, between the Thirties in Africa and 1944 in Italy. Unlike All the King’s Men, which is told by a single narrator, The English Patient has four points of view, one for each of Ondaatje’s four protagonists: Nurse, Patient, Thief, and Sapper. The book  opens in the Nurse’s point of view. The year is 1944. The place is Italy. As the Nurse climbs steep steps to tend the Patient, the writer uses the image of a bird drifting down to set up his flashback structure: “There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk.” The image of the hawk informs the reader about the zigzag structure of time-slippage that defines this book.

On the third page of the novel, the point of view shifts to the Patient – “I fell burning into the desert.” – and the trap door opens, dropping us into the African desert in wartime, when the Allies fought the Axis over oil. This time-dance between past and present, between Patient and Nurse, continues throughout Chapter One. In Chapter Two, the Thief takes over the point-of-view, then alternates with the Nurse and the Patient. In Chapter Three, the point-of-view passes to Kirpal Singh, the Sikh sapper.

When you give point-of-view to a character, you stamp that character as Approved For Story-Telling. A point-of-view shift conveys the power of perspective. It changes gears. It slows the story. It puts demands on the reader. In The English Patient, Ondaatje uses point-of-view to introduce his four protagonists. Then he uses flashbacks to pull back story into the novel. Four protagonists means four back stories. If your workshop contains writers who have two or more protagonists, use Ondaatje’s novel to bring up the dramatic problem – late entry of the antagonist – and then have them do a power grid on time and place and multiple point-of-view. The grid below tracks flashbacks for the first three chapters of The English Patient:

 

POV

Place

Time

Object

Nurse villa, garden, bedroom present water
Patient desert, Sand Sea past fire, kiss
Nurse villa, bedroom present candle
Patient oasis, desert past oil
Nurse villa, library present book
Patient desert, oasis past glass, oils
Nurse Villa present sink
Thief hospital, Pisa past bandaged hands
Nurse villa, garden present headless statue
Thief villa, Milan past photo, camera
Nurse hospital, Pisa past lion, plums, hammock
Thief chamber, Milan past blood, thumbs
Nurse villa, library present piano, bomb
Author Italy past crossbow, hot oil
Sapper Italy, rivers, Arezzo past mud, motorbike, frescoes

 

Analysis of the Grid: Objects tell the story as the point-of-view slides from character to character, as the story zigzags between past and present.  Water, the object in the Nurse’s opening section, is Katharine’s object in the novel. And the Patient invokes Katharine’s memory in his first flickering flashback: “He remembers picnics, a woman who kissed parts of his body that now are burned into the colour of aubergine.” This is world-class writing. Aubergine means eggplant, a purple vegetable. It’s an educated word, an upper class Upper World descriptor, that not only locks down the Patient’s perspective, but also his soul. The recurring object is the book, the Patient’s copy of Herodotus’s The Histories, which enters the story in the Nurse’s hands in her third flashback on page 16. The first thing she reads from the Herodotus is a description of wind and sandstorms, the passage that turned into a monologue in Act Two of the film adaptation, when the Desert Explorer (the Patient before he was transformed by fire) uses a monologue about ancient desert winds to tell Katharine that he loves her. Tip for the rewrite: when you have a fancy quotation from an author long-dead, insert the passage into a scene of foreplay and incipient passion. Here they are, trapped in a truck that’s getting buried by sand, and this guy, a die-hard romantic, talks of wind and love moans in the subtext and those who have not read the novel assume he’s making it up as he goes along, not quoting Herodotus.

The power grid illustrates the page-gobbling power of four protagonists and their back stories. The novel is 300 pages long. The antagonist shows up on page 141, when the writer has laid down, with skill and a deft touch, back stories for the Big Four. At this point, I stop to point out that only a scant handful of professionals can sling prose like Ondaatje does in The English Patient. This is a major work. Unreachable by mortals. But there is a lesson in rewriting if your writers can think of the novel as a First Draft on the way to a film. If they can think of the script as a Bridge. If they can think of the film as Final Draft.

Have them read that online essay On Adaptation (tripod.com-Minghella), where Anthony Minghella shows writers the Way of the Rewrite. “Most audiences,” Minghella writes, “tire after a couple of hours, get confused by a decentralised narrative, can’t tolerate fractured chronology unless it’s transparently presented, need to spend some time with charactrs simply to recognise them and situate them.” Minghella’s revision – novel into film – took four years. The revision needed more images of Katharine, the antagonist who enters late in the novel, in a single water-image at the midpoint in Chapter Four. To make room for Katharine, he cut the Sapper’s British UXB flashback, which takes up most of Chapter Seven. Use a diagram to show how one flashback released back story that took up ten per cent of the novel.

With Katharine’s role enlarged, the Patient became the main protagonist. That one cut simplified the narrative. The Nurse was safe because she was attached to the Patient in the present. The Sapper was attached to the Nurse. The Thief, a spy, connected the Patient in the present with Geoffrey Clifton in the past. Behind his boyish smile, Geoffrey was a spy for British Intelligence. Geoffrey, a man without much back story, was linked to the Patient and Katharine by the sexual triangle that was built on the sexual triangle from the Herodotus – Gyges, Candaules, and Queen Omphale.

When you teach back story and flashback, use this example. Or one like it.

Use it to squeeze the back story out of the book into that little rectangular box at the starting point of the novel, way to the left.