A tragic lover or Hitler's desert rat?

The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy
June 25, 2004

One of the most uncomfortable articles about the Oscar-winning film of my brother Michael Ondaatje's Booker prizewinning novel, The English Patient , appeared in Canada in 1997 in the Queen's Quarterly , published by Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. "Philosophy, morality and The English Patient " was written by the philosopher Thomas Hurka. He argued that "the film made of the book portrayed the fictional [Count] 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."

John Bierman, author of this biography of Alm asy, The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient , states that Elizabeth Salett, whose father was the Hungarian Consul-General in pre-war Egypt, writing in The Washington Post , 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 responded that the film (directed and scripted by Anthony Minghella) was faithful to his novel and that it was not a documentary or a 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 of Almasy's true motivation, Bierman explains, is "the question at the heart of this biography".

Laszlo Almasy was born in Castle Borostyanko in Hungary in 1895. 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 fabled oasis of Zerzura in Egypt.

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 Gilf Kebir - but he failed to convince an indifferent world that it was the true Zerzura, the "Oasis of Small Birds". However, on the same trip he did discover the important prehistoric rock paintings of Ain Doua. His book Récentes Explorations dans le Désert Libyque appeared in 1936.

In the build-up to the Second World War in 1939, Almasy came under increasing scrutiny from the British and the Italians, who both 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 General Rommel. Daring expeditions behind British lines won him an Iron Cross from the Germans. Then in 1942, a sick Almasy was sent back to Hungary, where he was tried by the Russians as a collaborator. The fact of his escape from Hungary indicates that he may have switched sides to the Allies and become an informant for the British. Bierman concludes that he could not have got out of Russian hands without the intervention of British Intelligence.

At any rate, Almasy returned to Cairo a crushed man. After the war, 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 the Soviet and Hungarian secret police, was failing. He was flown at royal expense from Cairo to Salzburg, where he died in 1951. He had no visitors, and he was buried in a meagre rented plot 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 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.

Christopher Ondaatje is a council member of the Royal Geographical Society and author of Hemingway in Africa .

The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient

Author - John Bierman
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 304
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 670 91417 7

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