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Saturday, April 27, 2013

What Do We Owe the Past?

"The English Patient", Michael Ondaatje's elegiac novel (and the subsequent film) is purportedly based on the life of Hungarian Laszlo de Almasy, a nobleman who explored the Egyptian and Libyan deserts during the 1930s, and who, after an ill-starred romance in whose course he reluctantly aids the German Afrika Korps, dies of burns in an Italian hospital.

It's a well-written story, and a visually beautiful film. Unfortunately, it's as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Almasy was a real person. His claims to nobility are disputed, but his explorations of the Sahara are not - he discovered hitherto unknown 'swimming man' petroglyphs that indicated, for the first time, that the huge desert was once well-watered. He was by all accounts brave and resourceful.

He was also a supporter of Hitler, and willingly worked as a guide for the Afrika Korps. He died in 1951 in Austria.

So, what's wrong with a little bit of artistic license? Doesn't basing the main character on a real person make the story more attractive?

Indeed it does. Unfortunately, it;'s a bit too attractive, and the real Almasy disappears behind his fictional counterpart. His real story is interesting; he was a proficient desert navigator, and delivered two Nazi spies to Cairo in 1942. He could have been instrumental in forming an irregular raiding force for the Germans, much like the British Long Range Desert group, founded by Ralph Bagnold (who literally wrote the book on sand dunes - "Physics of Blown Desert Sand" was used by NASA to study sand dunes on Mars).

But the Germans didn't take the opportunity, and Almasy's role was limited to guiding small units around the flanks of Britain's Eighth Army.

So what?

Lots. The Second World War is the defining event of the 20th century, and has shaped the world we live in today. Understanding the mechanisms that were set in place by that conflict and refined through the subsequent decades is vital for charting a successful course through the dangers that face the free world.

To understand something, you have to know it. The real it, not a novelist's imagined world. And we are losing direct experience of that period in history every day. In a decade, there will be virtually no combat veterans left living. In two or three decades, the war will pass from living memory, and literature is all we'll have left.

We owe it to ourselves, our children, and not least of all the people who lived at that time to represent it accurately. There's nothing wrong with novels or films set against the backdrop of the war, but playing with facts to make a better tale goes beyond a boundary I think we ought to respect.

What do you think?

(By the way - Almasy's romance with the lovely Katherine would certainly not have occurred in real life. He was a homosexual.)

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