in The English Patient
|It is impossible to understand the action in the English Patient without a sound knowledge of deserts. The desert influences human's activities to a large extent. The dryness of the desert, the sandstorms, and so much more that contributes to the desert's reputation as a hostile place to stay forces man to adapt to the environment.|
The Cave of Swimmers that is unveiled to us in the movie is intriguing. The irony that civilisation had existed in the very place of belligerence shows us that there was life in the sands, hope for the safety of Cairo again when life hangs on the balance in the desert. The geographical aspect makes us understand the actual situation. It is now known that the pattern of the earth's climate is known to fluctuate. When the earth had wetter climates, the Sahara shrunk and was invaded by temperate climates. This enabled early man to live there by farming and rearing livestock.
Sandstorms frequently occur in the desert. In The English Patient, a sandstorm occurred which traps Almásy and Katharine in the jeep. That time spent trapped in a disaster together strengthens their bond and eventually makes them fall in love with each other. With knowledge of geography, Almásy is able to predict that there will be a sandstorm when the air starts filling with dust and sand. The desert is one of the most hostile places on earth. Therefore, it is only when sophisticated devices were invented that humans dared to venture into the depths of the Sahara, on of the biggest deserts on earth.
Survival during desert travel is crucial and difficult because of the desert characteristics. Deserts have, on average, less than 250mm of rain per year. This rainfall is also not equally distributed because the rainfall falls in huge quantities at once. Therefore, the mapmakers have to rely on their instincts to find water and towns or travel at times when the temperature is moderate. When Almasy's travelling party gets lost from Madox's, they used flareguns to attempt to get attention but failed. This shows us how important it is to stay within contact and with supplies.
Due to its arid condition, it is an excellent archive of artefacts and evidence of man's history and that of earth itself. Unfortunately, in The English Patient, the desert is used as a battleground, a piece of land to be fought over and won from others. The irony lies in that the people who wage these wars do not even belong to the desert, they are mere aliens who come and quite presumptuously stake a claim to what is not theirs in the first place, thinking that the desert can be possessed just like anything else.
|However, in this instance, the desert 'fought' back and claimed the lives of these intruders instead. At the end of the novel, the wind blown sand covers the shallow tracks of these people and it is as if the intruders were never there in the first place. The desert serves to remind us that we are mere humble creatures in this larger scheme of things that we are unable to see, that nature should reign over man, not vice versa or trouble will happen.|
The desert changes the individuals thought of life and way of thinking. Katharine matures and becomes deep in thought after looking at the other side of life that is simple and meaningful. For example, water, which is abundant on one side and practically worth little, is very precious for survival. The tribes' way of life and habits contrasts with civilisation in cities. They practice simple actions with little worry of many complexities that we are unable to solve. Such a simple lifestyle is desired by many overworked individuals. However, in the their quest to climb up the economic ladder, people do not actually think of the meanings and wonders of life. This contrasts to the tribes who spend their life in harmony and peace.
While looking at the desert with the characters, we must stop to admire the desert as well. It is inhospitable, yet it is able to host animals and plants adapting to the dry and hot climate. The cave of swimmers also makes man remember that this century is but a footprint of the whole journey by man. It takes many thousands for humans to develop their thinking so that they are able to manifest brilliantly this century in technological developments.
Today, the desert still stands magnificently against human civilisation, it's greatness unchanged throughout. Technology might have improved man's chances to survive in deserts, but its secrets and actions are still too complex for man to grasp fully. It stands as a stronghold against human domination of the Earth. Ondaatje must have illustrated the desert as the background to show the small size and power of man compared to the desert. This in turn affects the characters development of thought and lets the plot progresses.
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