“Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog’s paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog’s paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It’s a cathedral! her father had said, so-and-so’s garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen–a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.”
Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel, The English Patient, is a revelation of wonderful insights, not least about mourning. For the novel illuminatingly explores why and how we may dare to mourn each other which is the risk of love. Sometimes the risk seems too painful and when a maimed character called Caravaggio promises another ‘damaged’ figure that ‘I shall have to learn how to miss you.‘ We recognize perhaps with a shock, the cost of love.
Missing another is not a ‘given’. War has made mourning too dangerous. Only the tentative possibility of a new future might allow ‘missing’ to be experienced once again.
For look at the fragility and hesitation of the syntax here. The words reveal the depth of suffering endured.
What promises can we make to others and even to ourselves? Trauma has separated human beings from their ability or willingness to feel. Perhaps in the future the estrangement will lessen and human beings can risk ‘missing’ each other once again.
In the passage above, Hana, the Nurse (who cares for the burnt figure of the dying English Patient himself), recalls her relationship with her dead father through this movingly personal remembrance that is both tableau and sensory feast. Her father’s actions testify to his most tender curiosity.
The lingering curiosity of scent remains in Hana’s memory even after her father has died; or rather especially after her father has died. The very idiosyncratic curiosity of her father makes him unforgettable and the remembrance is suffused with a tenderness that is the gift of enduring love.
The father’s exclamation ‘It’s a cathedral!’ suggests the almost sacred, awe inspiring impact of the olfactory journey captured in the paws of a dog. The elation of Hana’s father transcends mortality. A natural ‘detective’ alert to the curiosity of nature, Hana’s father was truly and curiously alive and Hana’s recollection communicates a magnificently intimate moment in Hana’s personal history.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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