Almost hidden in this characteristically dense proliferation of images, Michael Ondaatje has a vision of pre-war British explorers, now landlocked in Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, making the anxious journey to Kensington Gore as guest lecturers to the Royal Geographical Society. By convention, their expeditionary accounts give no hint of emotion; by convention, the Society memorialises nothing but the itinerary and its scientific significance. Death is recorded by name, date and co-ordinate, like the casualty rolls in wartime. Impressed by the solemn austerity, but regretful of its awful silence, Ondaatje seeks to tell the whole story of four characters lost in the chaos of the Second World War, each an inheritor of that restless self-sufficiency that sent these explorers into the cartographic wilderness.
The unnamed English patient is himself an explorer, before the war an obsessive decoder of the desert’s secrets, during the war a nomadic bearer of intelligence moving between Egypt and Libya. Now, as the war limps to its conclusion, he is lying in an abandoned Tuscan villa, the solitary patient