Identity Crisis in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Atılım University in Ankara, Turkey
The aim of this paper is to analyze identity crisis in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient from a postcolonial perspective through the concept of nationalism and national identity, emphasizing cultural, psychological and physical displacement due to colonization, travelling, exploration and space / place (cartography), referring to the theories and views of Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabba, Franz Fanon, Edward Said, and so on.
The paper will mainly focus on the erasure of the national identities and selves of a group of European explorers, scientists and spies, including the colonized Kip, an Indian, serving as a bomb defuser in the British Army. Even though these scientists’ mission is to map the desert, they can hardly achieve it. The desert is uncontrollable and unreliable because of sand storms. Its surface changes rapidly and one can be lost forever. In other words, the desert is the metaphor of their unreliable national identities that are fragmented and varied because of their traumatic personal experiences in this alien landscape and culture. The paper will emphasize the fragility of identities and selves even for those who represent European civilization and Imperial Rule as hegemonic powers together with the colonized Kip who is shaped by these powers as a hybrid identity. Key Words: hybridity, nationalism, national identity, postnationalism, space / place
The English Patient is a novel that seeks to explore the problem of identity and displacement, experienced both by colonizer and colonized. As known, identity is a social construct and largely determined by the relationship between self and other. It is through our sense of identity that we identify ourselves as members of various ethnic groups or nations as well as social classes which provide us with a sense of belonging. Likewise, nations are communities which provide a sense of belonging through the individual’s feeling of connectedness to his or her fellow men. In other words, individuals think that they are a part of one collective body, namely, a community known as nation, which is in fact an idea, defined by Benedict Anderson as “an imagined political community” (6). The survival of nations depend upon invention and performance of traditions, histories, symbols which help people sustain their identity. However, it mostly depends on traditions and narration of history, which are central elements. Therefore, national history is important in the sense that it narrates the past as a common experience that belongs to a community. It creates one particular version of the past and identity to constitue a common past and a collective identity of any given community. In other words, nations are “imaginary communities,” to use Benedict Anderson‘s phrase, and nationalism is based on the very concept of a unified imaginary community. Furthermore, nations also provide people with a sense of belonging, connectedness and identity through a shared territory which they believe they own and therefore have the right to separate from other peoples’ land by means of borders. As an idea, scholars usually agree that it is Western in origin, that it came into existence with the development of Western capitalism, industrialization and colonial expansion, which paved the way for imperialism.
However, starting with the 90s, nationalism, nation and national identity began to lose their significance as the world was becoming increasingly international, particularly after the period of decolonization. The concept of nation / nationalism and national identity
as Western ideas stimulated colonized peoples to develop their own sense of nationalism and national identity against the colonial, national identity of the West. However, this anticolonial nationalism could not provide the colonised peoples with a sense of homogeneous...
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