For those who are wondering about the
In The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy, John Bierman sets about trying to demystify some of the details surrounding the Hungarian whose life became so closely entwined with Egypt, the informal British desert explorers of the 1930s and the wartime activities of both Allied and Axis forces in Egypt and Libya during World War II.
John Bierman was a newspaper editor before becoming BBC correspondent. He also made documentary films and has written many non-fiction books, including Alamein: War Without Hate with Colin Smith. He dedicates this book to members of the Long Range Desert Group. There is a splendid review of his career in his obituary on The Guardian website.
In the prologue Bierman introduces us to Almasy at a party at the Royal palace in
The first chapter describes Almasy's upbringing priveledged but fragmented upbringing in a Hungarian castle, his education in Britain (where he learned to fly), his involvement in the Hungarian army, his role in an attempt to return the exiled Hungarian king to the throne (when Almasy claims he was awarded the title "Count") and his involvement, via successes in motor rallying, with the car manufacturer Steyr. Steyr recruited him as a representative to establish their brand in the Middle East, sending him to
The remaining chapters are rivetting, telling the story first of Almasy's rediscovery of the Darb el Arabin (the 40 Days trail), his involvement with the informal Zerzura Club, his obsession with the Lost Army of Cambyses, his role in WWII, and his post war years. It is clear that Almasy really did become obsessed with the desert and its myths at a very early stage and that this coloured everything that followed in his life.
Chapter 11, dealing with the years 1932 to 1936 describes how Almasy was associated closely with both the Germans in
When the Second World War broke out, everything changed and those who had been involved in light hearted exploration of the desert now provided much needed expertise and data for engaging in desert warfare in
Almasy did not survive long following the war. He was tried in Hungary as a war criminal by the invading Russian army, but was smuggled out of the country with the help of the British governement and returned to Cairo. In Cairo he gave flying lessons to make ends meet, and was finally given his dream role as head of the Desert Institute. Unfortunately his health had always been something of a trial due to ailments from his desert years and the effects of torture at the hands of the Russian army following their capture of Hungary. He collapsed suddenly and died only days later, rambling about Cambyses in his delerium.
Bierman brings places, people and events to life. His writing clear, lively and to the point. Chapters are assembled in a way that pulls the reader along in a fascinating tour through Almasy's world. I have been reading a number of travelogues of the western Sahara recently, and it is a refreshing change to read something that is devoid of literary self indulgence.
Everything is put into a its historical context (without which the story would fall apart). Bierman uses a number of sources including Almasy's own writing, official documents, the writings of his contemporaries and interviews with those who knew him. Bierman does an excellent job of providing an objective view of a man who was both complex and elusive. He also clears up many of the urban myths surrounding Almasy. Where there has more than one interpretation of events the author offers each with his own helpful reality-check to sort out which might be the most plausible explanation.
The overall impression that I came away with is that Almasy was a troubled man whose upbringing was partly responsible for a tendency to escapism and a desire for adventure and recognition. He seems to have been reserved and somewhat isolated, even slightly disconnected from reality - but not an unfeeling man. He comes across as obsessive, and always seems to be striving for something that he cannot quite reach.
My only real moan is that there weren't enough dates scattered around. I became rather disorientated as to which year we were in - which was confusing when it was occasionally necessary for the narrative to jump back and forth in time. I had to back-track on a number of occasions to find out when we were, in order to get the sequence of events right. The lack of dates also occasionally gave me the illusion that everything happened in a shorter period than it actually did.
I wasn't expecting to like Almasy, and I still don't empathise with him, but I do have a much better understanding of who he was and what he actually did. If you are interested in this period of Egyptian history, and in Laszlo Almasy in particular, it is a very good read.