The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient: The Real English Patient

by John Bierman
ISBN: 0670914177

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A Review of: The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient
by Christopher Ondaatje

One of the most uncomfortable articles about my brother's book The English Patient appeared in 1997 in Queen's Quarterly, published in Canada. The article was entitled "Philosophy, Morality and The English Patient" and was written by the philosopher Thomas Hurka. John Bierman, the author of a new book The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient, paraphrases Hurka as arguing that the film made of the book portrayed the fictional Almasy as a man who put his personal desires above his higher obligation to combat the evil of Nazism and made a philosophically indefensible choice in striking a faustian bargain with the Germans; he traded his desert expertise for the use of an aircraft, which enabled him to keep his promise to his dead lover and return to the cave where he had been forced to leave her. "It is this utter denigration of the political that makes The English Patient immoral," stated Professor Hurka. "There was not just some political end at stake in the Second World War; there was resistance to Nazism, a movement threatening millions of innocent people. Yet the movie treats even this end as morally inconsequential."
Writing in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Salett, whose father was the Hungarian Consul-General in pre-war Egypt, also took issue with the film's depiction of Almasy as "an accidental spy responding to personal tragedy." She described Almasy as a committed Nazi collaborator whose knowledge of the desert was crucial to the Germans and might have made a considerable difference to the course of their African campaign.
My brother, however, in a letter to the Press, stated that he was satisfied with the film's (directed and scripted by Anthony Mingbella) faithful rendition of his novel and that it was not a documentary or history lesson. He wrote: "It holds no sympathy for Nazis It is about forgiveness, how people come out of war If a novelist or dramatist or film-maker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works "
Was Almasy working for the Nazi war effort for the chance it would give him to return to the desert he loved? Or did he in fact believe in Hitler's war aims? This riddle concerning Almasy's true motivation, the author explains, is "the question at the heart of this biography."
My brother's book The English Patient is fiction of course, although he did not give his protagonist a fictitious name as he did with all the other characters in his novel. "Fiction is one thing and biography another and each has its own rules of engagement," Bierman explains in the prologue to his biography, adding that he "believes in the truth of fiction', that at its creative best, the novel can reveal more-not so much about a given individual but about his or her character and the human condition in general-than the most rigorously researched, artfully constructed and factually faithful biography." Thus the author of the biography, The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy, has attempted to put the record straight by revealing who the real Almasy was and to detail his life-marked by paradox and intrigue-before, during, and after the Second World War.
Count Laszlo Almasy was born in Castle Borostyonko in Hungary in 1895 without a title. He achieved this later by befriending and aiding the exiled Habsburg Pretender King Karl IV in a failed coup in 1921. However, he was never able to use the title in his own country. He joined the Austro-Hungarian air force after the outbreak of the First World War and then, after the war ended, became enthused with the idea of discovering the legendary "Oasis of Zerzura". He made several intrepid journeys during 1931 and 1933 with this in mind. On the first of these, with fellow British members of the Zerzura Club, he saw from the air the acacia-dotted Wadi in the Gulf Kibir, but he failed to convince an indifferent world that it was the true Zerzura, the fabled "Oasis of the Small Birds." However, on the same trip he did discover the important prehistoric rock paintings of Ain Dua, although his claim to being the first to find these was contested by the Italian Professor Count Lodovico di Caporiacco. Almasy's book Rcentes explorations dans le Dsert Libyque was published in 1937. In a later expedition with Baron von der Esch he explored the dune country southeast of Siwa oasis hoping to find that lost army of Cambyses. Photographs of this journey were later used as illustrations for Nord Ost Afrika, the official German handbook of the Afrika Korps.
In the build-up to the Second World War in 1939 Almasy came under increasing scrutiny from both the British and the Italians. Each thought he was a spy for the other country. He was forced out of Egypt by the British, but returned to Libya as a Luftwaffe Captain and adviser to Field Marshall Rommel. Daring expeditions behind British lines won him an iron cross. Then in 1942 a sick Almasy was sent back to Hungary where he was tried by the Russians as a collaborator. Almasy's escape from Hungary may well indicate that he had switched sides again as an informant for the British. Certainly Bierman concludes that his escape could not have been managed without the active intervention of British Intelligence. He returned to Cairo a crushed man. Then in 1950 the anti-British King Farouk launched the Cairo Desert Institute and appointed Almasy as its first director. It was his supreme moment of triumph. But his health, ruined by endless years of desert hardship and prolonged months of ill-treatment by Soviet and Hungarian secret police, was failing irrecoverably. He was flown at royal expense from Cairo to Innsbruck and then to Salzburg where he died on 22 March 1951. He had no visitors; and was buried in the unmarked Parcel 75, Row 4, Number 2 in Salzburg's Municipal Cemetery. The only mourners at his funeral were his doctor and a priest. Shortly after his funeral Almasy's brother Janos (who had a curiously binding friendship with the Nazi-loving Unity Mitford) flew to Cairo to dispose of his effects. In Almasy's flat at Zamelek he found very little except for "a few sticks of furniture-no notes, no letters, no diaries, no maps and no money. The house had been cleared out, either by Almasy's house servant, who was missing, or more likely by British and/or Egyptian Intelligence."
The distinction between fact and fiction is often blurred by writers and film-makers. In this case, Bierman has produced an entertaining story based on a few facts and many speculations. But his bold attempt to find something mysterious in Almasy's intriguing and perplexingly complicated life fails to bring us any nearer to the truth about "The English patient" as presented in my brother's novel.

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