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The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy

The Real English Patient

by John Bierman £16.99

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, who argued 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 by trading his desert expertise for the use of an aircraft, enabling him to keep his promise to his dead lover and return to the cave where he had been forced to leave her.”

Further to this John Bierman, the author of a new book The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient, states that Elizabeth Salett writing in the Washington Post, and 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 in history.

My brother, however, in a letter to the Press, stated his satisfaction that the film (directed and scripted by Anthony Mingbella) was faithful to his novel and that it was not a documentary or history lesson. “It holds no sympathy for Nazis … It is about forgiveness, how people come out of war…”

Was Almasy working for the Nazi war effort as a chance to return to the desert he loved? Or did he in fact believe in Hitler’s war aims? The riddle as to which was Almasy’s true motivation, the author explains, is “the question at the heart of this biography”.

Count Laszlo Almasy was born in Castle Borostyonko in Hungary in 1895 and although the family was aristocratic the Almasys had no title. This he achieved later by befriending and aiding the exiled Habsburg Pretender King Karl IV in a failed coup in 1921. 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 which he failed to convince an indifferent world was the true Zerzura, the fabled “Oasis of Small Birds”. However, on the same trip he did discover the important prehistoric rock paintings of Ain Dua. Almasy’s book Récentes explorations dans le Désert Libyque was published in 1937.

In the build-up to the Second World War in 1939 Almasy came under increasing scrutiny from both the British and the Italians, who each thought he was a spy. 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 indicates he may have switched sides again as an informant for the British. Bierman concludes that this could not have been done with the active intervention of British Intelligence. He returned to Cairo a crushed man but 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 Salzburg where he died on 22 March 1951. He had no visitors, and was buried in an unmarked Parcel in Salzburg’s Municipal Cemetery. 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. 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 credibly by British and/or Egyptian Intelligence.”

The distinction between fact and fiction is often blurred, and the critical opposition to historical and artistic truths should not apply to all literature. In this case the author has produced an entertaining factual story. However 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 real English patient”.

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