Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Review: The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy

This is a very informal review of John Bierman's The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy, the Real English Patient by John Bierman (Penguin 2004). As a review, it is a trifle long - but that's the advantage of owning your own blog :-)

For those who are wondering about the Egypt connection, Laszlo Almasy was a conspicuous character in the exploration of Egypt's Western Desert in the early 1930s, and was employed by Axis forces for his eastern Sahara knowledge during WWII. His connection with Egypt lasted until his death in 1951 when he was Director of the Cairo Desert Institute. His name was used in Michael Ondaatje's novel (and the subsequent film) The English Patient, but his life has only an ephemeral relationship with that fictional character.

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 Cairo, not long before Almasy's death, and shows us something of the cultural and political post-war context of the time. Bierman explains some of the confusion over the identity of Almasy arising from the film The English Patient, although he never explains why Ondaatje felt the need to give his fictional character the name of a real person. It is made clear that finding facts about Almasy's life was by no means straight forward, and that there are many questions that remain unanswered.

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 Cairo.

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 Egypt (some of whom were thought to be spies) and the British. He offered information of potentially military significance about the desert to both Italian and Egyptian governments. Unsurprisingly, all officials were suspicious of him. I wondered as I was reading if it was Almasy's obsession with returning to the desert that had led him to woo friends in all camps. This would seem to have been short sighted, even naïve, but is given support at the end of Chapter 13 when Almasy is quoted saying that his main interest in serving Rommel was to acquire resources to enable him to continue his search for the lost army.

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 Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Chad. Almasy was seconded to the German forces whilst his former friends created and formed the Long Range Desert Group to repulse Axis efforts to penetrate further east.

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.


Zoltorok said...

Dear Andie,

I am very sorry that you read Biermann book only. He did not like Almasy, so your opinion based on his bias. The book could demistify only the 'English patient' in the movie, but not the real person. His life was more than a novel, but no secret was uncovered by that author. Perhaps you, and many others interested in the subject, would agree, a more balanced biography, based on real research would be more enjoyable and revealing.

Zsolt Torok
Almasy biographer

Andie said...

Dear Zsolt

Thank you very much for writing. I enjoyed reading your comment. I liked the Biermann book. I don't think that you necessarily have to like someone to find them interesting, or to appreciate them, and that was really what I was saying about Almasy. But I keep meaning to write a review of one of the books Almasy wrote himself, which was translated into English. I found that it gave me a much greater insight into the way Almasy's mind worked. My interests are more to do with the dynamic between the various people operating in the Western Desert at that time than in any one individual, and I have read work by many members of the Long Range Desert Group as well. They are all fascinating and have helped me to get a real insight into a period of time, a specific area and a set of remarkable people. Of course, any other biographies that are published will be of equal interest and I look forward to reading more.

All the best

angela1221 said...

László Almássy's work about his discoveries in Libyan Desert is downloadable in Hungarian. You can find it here: