Ondaatje's The English Patient questions the idea of fixed identity for nations but not women. It relinquishes fixed national identities in favour of a flux of multiple, incessant becoming. In contrast, far from similarly decentering woman's identity and emptying its discursively produced socio-symbolic meanings, the novel continues to accept identity addressed in terms of the female body, its culturally reinforced materiality, and its institutionally sanctified appearances. Imbued with socially marked distinctiveness, the female body consequently gives forth a particular embodiment of the feminine that operates as its unproblematic facticity, thus simultaneously narrowing down the scope of identity options from which the feminine is compelled to derive the make-up of its very much truncated existence.
Ondaatje's preoccupation with issues of identity permeates his postcolonial texts, which present identity as a matter of multiple cultural origins and dispersed (geographical) locations. Such spatial dispersions in turn render it not only heterogeneous, fluid, and fragmented but also strikingly indeterminable. Identity, for Ondaatje, resists all closure and fixity. Perhaps surprisingly, he does not deploy this notion of identity as multiple (and therefore beyond definition to question the identity of women. Indeed, he accepts the socially induced particularities of woman's discursively entrenched identity. Although female identity could easily feature as another site of ideological contentions and examination of imposed meanings, it remains instead entangled in traditional networks of prescribed, seemingly monolithic and indisputable, bodily figurations. Veiled by the cloak of unassailable neutrality, these, however, bear the imprint of invading, alien connotations imparted by a male gaze, which turns the female body into a self-divorced, socially shaped and historically colonised territory. At the same time these culturally generated manifestations of a female body also carry the echoes of social practices aimed at containing and controlling women's bodies, which in the course of history have ranged from 'foot-binding and corseting to rape and battering, to compulsory heterosexuality, forced sterilisation, unwanted pregnancy and [lately] explicit commodification'(Bordo 1993: 188-9).
In the novel woman is embodied in the figure of Katherine, the lover of the English Patient (rather Almasy). Ondaatje defines Katherine solely in terms of her body, which, since she is denied a voice of her own and can therefore spring into life only through the narration of her observer, consequently becomes her only reality in the world of the text. Traversed by the investigating, possessive, and recasting gaze of her lover (himself a dedicated desert explorer), Katherine's body is criss-crossed by male inscriptions of significance. These form an imprisoning network of artificially imposed relations that speak for her and instead of her. By virtue of being enmeshed in this constricting, defining structure, the body of the woman becomes a repository of other people's projected desires. She cannot escape being tampered with, mapped, and designated according to the culturally implanted expectations and desires of gazing man. His perception and his language trap her in a fixed position that reduces her to her body and to her sex alone.
Woman's entrapment within narrowly schematized identity is further compounded by the novel's metaphors that question artificially erected national boundaries and the attendant phenomenon of crumbling national affiliations. The image of the desert captures such displaced and eroded national identities that defy any precise definition, for the desert "could not be claimed or owned [for] it [is] a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names'" (pp. 138-139) . Caught in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of its disappearances and self-fashioned appearances, the desert's specificity is put under question for, paradoxically enough, it can be defined only in terms of its indefinability. Folding and unfolding itself every single time as an eclectic collection of permutations, the desert refuses to be mapped. It denies the validity of any single pattern of understanding imposed by outside observers, by those who create maps of the desert. The activity of creating desert maps therefore translates itself into the imposition of artificial boundaries and fabricated identities pieced together from scraps of self-contradictory legends. Out of such an effectively uncharted territory, in which one becomes her or his own invention, emerges a "citizen of nowhere or somewhere in one's mind," enjoying a multiple and multi-layered view that fans out and spills across state boundaries. Poised at the same multicultural intersection, from where he can simultaneously embrace a diversity of unobstructed views, exploding into a myriad of directions, is the English patient, or count de Almas, who is both English and Hungarian and yet neither of the two.
Unlike Katherine's body, which reduces her to her sex, his body oozes with universally invested meanings. Retrieved from the wreckage of a burning plane, his body is later carried across the North African desert amid strewn with the wreckage of WWII battles and finally ends up splayed on a sickbed in an Italian villa. The blackness of its charred skin might, as some have suggested, possibly connote the demise of white male civilisation ravaged by WWII and the onslaught of nuclear war. It also raises the question what an Englishman really is after all these centuries of colonisation -- centuries when blackness and whiteness unavoidably crossed rigorously maintained socio-political boundaries in an unconscious attempt cross-pollination. The permeability of borders is enacted between the English patient and a Sikh British army sapper.
Kip, the sapper, is depicted as enamoured of the white culture that invaded his Indian being and ousted its constitutive core. Accordingly, when Kip is sent out on his first training mission to defuse a bomb, he finds himself literally cradled in the bosom of white civilisation, and the very act of his descending, "down into the giant white chalk horse of Westbury, into the whiteness of the horse, carved into the hill so that now he was a black figure (p.181) coming to the rescue of his master's civilisation indicates his immersion in the bowels of white culture. In this respect Western civilisation does not only swallow Kip by cocooning him in its modes of perception but literally digests him so in order to gain a new creative potential. White supremacy has posited the "other" so as to be able to barricade itself behind the moat of the imaginary security of an unproblematic, clear-cut, and easily recognisable identity. In fact, it turns out to have no separable or fully independent existence from any absolute outside, since the culturally designated inside and outside turn out to swap places constantly, producing intricately intertwined, mutually informing relationships.
The charred blackness of The English Patient's skin then signifies the permeability of borders, an unconscious absorption or gradual conversion of the dying empire to the elements of "beastly otherness" it had fervently sought to expel but failed in its anguished attempts to do so. An Englishman turns out not to be so English after all. Rather he is an amalgam of inverted or decentered identities devoid of the meanings with which he originally started. The notion of an Englishman as an originary source of self-explanatory ideations turns out to be a deep-seated illusion In other words, "the English" as a species are extinct.
Outlined against the constellation of bodies gushing forth with a preponderance of loosened, dismantled, and obliterated national borders, Katherine's body, an exemplary enshrinement of female specificity, appears anachronistically trapped a fixed position. Transfixed by "the cold blue thumbtacks" of Almasy's eyes (Atwood in Staels1996: 5), she becomes "her sweating knee beside the gearbox of the truck, the knee swerving, rising with the bumps" (p.150); a cluster of "awkward limbs (and 'thin lines of her ankles" (p.218)) climbing out of a plane, bending down in [desert researchers'] midst to prod a fire, her elbow up and pointed towards [ Almasy ] as she drinks from a canteen" (p.145); a sensuous mouth gulping "the chlorinated water [ with ] some coming down her chin and falling to her stomach" (p.149). The gaze of Almasy's tracking eyes coils itself around Katherine's highlighted body parts, supposedly pervaded with the marks of her sex, which congeal into an artifice of unity and univocity projected onto her. His gaze thus not only delimits but literally sculpts the body it then claims to find. Weighed under this burden, the carved up and remoulded body of the woman becomes taken as her essence. Furrowed with the imprints of the observer's culturally conditioned perceptions and linguistic coinages, it yields a particular embodiment of female that in fact displaces it at the moment it purports to represent it. Instead of functioning as a site of individual self-determination, the specularly constructed body of the woman, resonates with the evocations of a voice that cannot speak itself. It is a muffled voice -- a voice that must always attest the identity and values of its male designer.
Why is it that other identity trajectories free of nation-bound inhibitions can easily embrace their bearers' dividedness, rendering them at once plural and partial, while a woman's specific identity remains body-bound -- that is singular and univocal, precluding the possibility of widening her frame of reference or acquiring a sense of gravity independent of the male gaze? In her exposition of the way a female body, under specular and exteriorising conditions, gains its materiality that over time stabilises to produce the effect of boundary, fixity and surface, Butler (1993: 48-49) takes issue with Plato's postulation of male and female embodiments respectively, whereby she observes that men's intelligibility depends on the exclusion of women, slaves, children and animals, where slaves are characterised as those who do not speak his language, and who in not speaking his language, are considered diminished in their capacity for reason. This domain of the less-than-rational-human bounds the figure of human reason, producing the man as one who is without a childhood; is not a primate and so is relieved of the necessity of eating, defecating, living and dying; one who is not a slave, but always a property holder, one whose language remains originary and untranslatable. This is a figure of disembodiment, but one which is nevertheless a figure of a body, a bodying forth of a masculinized rationality - the figure of a male body which is not a [corporeal, immanent] body. The body that is reason -- is itself a phantasmatic dematerialization of masculinity, one which requires that women, slaves, children and animals be the body, perform the bodily functions it will not perform.
In the process of being divested of any kind of corporeal specificity, which is grafted onto the female body, the bearer of the male body is assigned the qualities of a body-transcendent and therefore universal personhood. As males within the system of gender specific embodiments appear to participate in the form of a universal and not a sexed person, it is the female body that shoulders the burden of corporeal immanence. Contemplated in terms of their corporeality only, women become 'ontologically suffused with the projected marks of their 'sex''' (Butler 1990) which qualifies one as particular and relative, especially when subjected to the surveillance of the male gaze. However, the social practice of tinkering with the body as a locus of culturally configured meanings extends beyond the mere discrepancy between disembodied male and fully invested corporeal female bodies to encompass a reinterpretation of physical features whose regrouping and remodulation under the category of sexual markings remain obscured under the protective layer of seemingly neutral linguistic operations.
As pointed out by Witting (in Butler 1990: 114), it is not only the accumulation of attributes under the category of one's distinctive sex that qualifies as highly suspect, but so is the very discrimination of the features themselves for they gain social meaning and unification only through their articulation within the category of sex. The very fact that "vagina, breasts, and so forth, are named sexual parts is both a restriction of the erogenous body to those parts and a fragmentation of the body as a whole" (ibid.). The unity of the female body, whose features could have been named in a way that would not reproduce the reductive operations of the category of the sex, is in fact a disunity, a fragmentation and compartmentalisation as well as a reduction of erotogeneity. The installed integrity and unity of the body, which are hardly ever thought of as having been first dismantled and then reassembled to suit the currently entertained notions of what goes into the construction of a socially accepted gendered subject, in fact serve the purposes of fragmentation, restriction, and domination of the body, which in turn not only produce its materiality but also streamline its forces, energies, sensations and pleasures. In Katherine's case, these are supposed to proliferate precisely at the level of her bodily contours as fractured, regrouped and remoulded by The English Patient's gaze, from which the facticity of Katherine's body also derives its only form of sustenance.
Obviously within the system of representing the universal then, as Braidotti (1994) observes, the cost men have to pay is disembodiment, or elision of gendered specificity into the abstraction of phallic masculinity. And the price women are compelled to pay so as to secure at least some semblance of social visibility, even though it spells their reduction to the immanence of the body that is both exploited and reduced to silence, is loss of subjectivity through over-embodiment and confinement to their gendered identity. In order to disrupt and counterbalance the socially enacted distribution of asymmetrical modes of coerced male and female embodiment, Braidotti further notes that
men need to repossess their abstracted bodily self by shedding some exclusive rights to transcendental consciousness. They need to get embodied, to get real, to suffer through the pain of re-embodiment, that is to say, incarnation, whereas women need to repossess subjectivity by reducing their confinement to the body (1997: 527-8).
Only in death can Katherine, whose contingent body is tattooed with the inscriptions of the map-charter's gaze, extricate herself from this kind of embodiment. In death the shell of her specularly constructed embodiment is cracked open to reveal a corpse whose stiffened features can no longer be construed along the lines of gender. For in death these dissolve to be replaced with the projections of a transcendental entity. The body of a woman is now finally attended to as transcendental, so that Katherine dies
containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes [one has] swallowed, bodies [one has] plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters [one has] climbed up into as if trees, fears [one has] hidden in as if caves. [And just like Almasy she, too, can ] wish for all this to be marked on [ her] body when [she is] dead.
Just like Almasy, she can now believe in such cartography -- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. [Finally, she too can] walk on such earth that [has] no maps. (p.264).