to die in a holy place
October 19, 2009, 2:43 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje‘s The English Patient.  One of the story lines in the novel is about explorers looking for a mythical desert oasis city.  Madox – the man who kills himself in the excerpt below – is a quiet explorer who has just returned to his wife back home, his work interrupted by the war’s incursion into the north African desert.

One of Ondaatje’s themes is nationalism.  When the Church becomes a propaganda arm of a warring state, civilized people kill themselves.  At least this civilized man does.  The uncivilized demur and look for profits.  And the flunkie priest in his robes blathers on.

It was July 1939.  They caught a bus from their village into Yeovil.  The bus had been slow and so they had been late for the service.  At the back of the crowded church, in order to find seats they decided to sit separately.  When the sermon began half an hour later, it was jingoistic and without any doubt in its support of the war.  The priest intoned blithely about battle, blessing the government and the men about to enter the war.  Madox listened as the sermon grew more impassioned.  He pulled out the desert pistol, bent over and shot himself in the heart.  He was dead immediately.  A great silence.  Desert silence.  Planeless silence.  They heard his body collapse against the pew.  Nothing else moved.  The priest frozen in a gesture.  It was like those silences when a glass funnel round a candle in church splits and all faces turn.  His wife walked down the centre aisle, stopped at his row, muttered something, and they let her in beside him.  She knelt down, her arms enclosing him.


It is important to die in holy places.  That was one of the secrets of the desert.  So Madox walked into a church in Somerset, a place he felt had lost its holiness, and he committed what he believed was a holy act.

~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient


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