Summary – Chapter Three, ‘Sometime a Fire’
It is explained that ‘the last medieval war was fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944’. Medieval scholars were ‘pulled out of’ Oxford colleges and flown to Umbria, and they spoke of towns in terms of art.
The young Sikh sapper, like other soldiers, had to cross rivers with no bridges (as they had been destroyed). He repays a kindness shown to him by one of these medievalists and takes him to Arezzo to see a fresco of the Queen of Sheba.
In the present, ‘the Sikh’ sets up a tent in the garden and performs duties ‘to do with the dismantling of mines’. The other sapper, Hardy, is billeted nearer the town, but they work together. He (the Sikh sapper) follows Caravaggio on some nights when he disappears until Caravaggio tells him not to. The trailing of him comes from a habit developed from the war, as is his target practice. Furthermore, the sapper is the only one of them to still wear a uniform.
On the night of the storm he had approached the villa because of the danger to the piano player: ‘The retreating army often left pencil mines within musical instruments. Returning owners opened up pianos and lost their hands.’ Bombs were also known to have been attached to taps, the spines of books and fruit trees.
The narrative shifts back to the time the sapper and other soldiers visited the Sistine Chapel. On asking the padre who was with them to identify one of the faces, the sapper was told that this was Isaiah. The sapper picked his face out through the sights on his rifle. He also witnessed the Marine Festival of the Virgin Mary at Gabicce Mare in 1944 and again watched the events through his sights.
Back in the present, Caravaggio (who has asked for morphine) wakes Hana when she falls asleep in the library. She reveals to him she was pregnant last year and lost the baby, and says she ‘had to lose it’ (and also says how the father was already dead). She tells him how since she has been a nurse she has come to know death. She also says how others thought of her as ‘a snob’ as she would not spend the soldiers’ money; she was sick of hunger and sick of being lusted after. She explains she courted one man and he died, and the child died: ‘I mean, the child didn’t just die, I was the one who destroyed it.’ After this, she stepped away from everyone until she met ‘the man burned black’.
After the ‘Sikh sapper’ has been there a week, they adapt to his eating habits. His name, Kirpal Singh, is referred to for the first time at this point, and how he also goes by the nickname Kip. He certainly prefers this to the English habit of calling people by their surname.
The narrative moves to ‘the English patient’ and how he wears his hearing aid and is ‘alive to everything in the house’. Hana had kept the ‘Englishman’ and Kip separate as she thought they would not like each other. However, she enters the Englishman’s room one day and finds Kip there. They have been talking about bombs, Italian fuses and this region of Tuscany. When she leaves the room she is pleased and tells Caravaggio she thinks ‘he’ has found a friend.
The narrative then cuts to Hana as she sits at the fountain and thinks of her father, Patrick, and how ‘his conversations lost some of their syllables out of shyness’. She compares him to ‘a hungry ghost’ that likes those around him to be ‘confident, even raucous’. She realizes that everything she knew about the ‘real’ world she learned alone, or from Caravaggio, or from her step-mother Clara. She has carried her letters from Clara with her this past year, but has not responded as she cannot bear ‘to talk of or even acknowledge the death of Patrick’.
Analysis – Chapter Three
Hana’s inability to consider the death of her father is made explicit at the end of this chapter. Her grief until now has been shown in her behavior, in the way she has chosen to isolate herself, rather than by having her speak of what has happened. This gradual and gentle explanation of her position is effective in highlighting how numb she has become from the trauma she has suffered. Her sense of loss is also seen to have been emphasised by the death of her lover and the abortion she decided to have.
The lingering effects of the war are also described in the way Kip follows Caravaggio, until he is asked not to do so, and in the target practice he undergoes. It is as though his patterns of behavior have been conditioned by the preceding years, and they are a difficult habit to break.