When a tragic love story is woven around the lives of real people and a film is made of it with powerful performances acted out in a landscape of haunting beauty, fiction trumps fact, artistic licence prevails and a landscape becomes part of our collective cultural unconscious, touching us like the Yorkshire moors of Charlotte Bronte or the Mississippi of Mark Twain. Such is the legacy of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient”, a fictional reconstruction of the lives of Count Almasy and Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton, played out in the vast stillness of the Gilf Kibir.
Count Laszlo Almasy wasn’t a count but aspired to be one. He had been born into a wealthy Hungarian family, spoke German, Italian and English as fluently as his native Hungarian, and was at ease in aristocratic circles. His brother had married into the Esterhazy family, the grandest of the Austrian aristocracy, while Laszlo had participated in a coup attempt to restore the Hapsburgs to the throne of Hungary after the debacle of the First World War. And though the coup was a dismal failure, the Kaiser honoured Laszlo with the title of count – a dubious honour since it had no validity without ratification by the Hungarian parliament which was now virulently anti-monarchist.
Laszlo’s role in the coup had been as a driver for the hapless Hapsburg and it was this fascination with intrigue, adventure and mechanized vehicles that was to dominate Laszlo’s life and later turn him into an agent for Nazi Germany.
It was as a teenager that he had gained his pilot’s licence and he was only twenty when he started flying missions during the First World War. It was as an agent for the Austrian automobile company, Steyr, that he first visited Egypt, promoting the company with high profile stunts in the company of his aristocratic friends: with his brother-in-law, Prince Antal Esterhazy, he drove the length of Egypt and Sudan into the remote mountains of Abyssinia to shoot Big Game; with Prince Ferdinand of Lichtenstein, he drove from Mombasa to Alexandria through the treacherous swamps of the Sudd, the whole expedition being filmed by an accompanying crew.
It was inevitable that he should eventually turn his eyes to the Gilf Kebir, the great highland plateau that rises abruptly out of the gravel plains and sand dunes of Egypt’s Western Desert. It had only just been discovered through the intrepid use of motorised vehicles and rumours were circulating that it might contain the lost oasis of Zerzura, a mysterious place of legend alluded to in tales from the Middle Ages and repeated down the ages by the desert Bedouin. Laszlo decided to be the first to explore it using an aircraft to accompany cars, but his plans were dashed when he crashed his aircraft flying it from Hungary.
It’s now that enters the handsome young Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, 9th Baronet of Marden, and his beautiful wife Dorothy Durran, sculptress and daughter of a distinguished country parson. Robert was a 23 year old officer in the Royal Navy who had just completed service in West Africa and was waiting for transfer to the Naval Air Arm. His craving, however, was for something more adventurous. Over a dinner, he learnt of Almasy’s quest for Zerzura and became fired up to join the mission. After obtaining six months leave from the Navy, he visited Almasy in Hungary and was accepted for the next expedition on the condition that he supplied an aeroplane. On returning to England, he married Dorothy, whom he had met only recently on an ocean voyage. Avoiding the society wedding normally expected of their wealth and social standing, they married quietly in a London Registry Office and then headed straight for Cairo.
The young couple were to become the models for the Cliftons in The English Patient, and their lives were to end similarly in tragedy, though under different circumstances from those in the novel. Dorothy met Almasy, and like Katharine in the novel, was cold with him in company, never shaking his hand and avoiding him whenever she could, but rather than a screen to hide a passionate attachment, her behaviour reflected a distaste for what she surmised to be a perverted and predatory sexuality. Almasy responded with aristocratic aloofness. Dorothy cultivated an elusive ambiguity, letting herself be known by her nickname, Peter.
Almasy led the expedition to the Gilf Kebir with a small fleet of cars, while Robert followed in his Tiger Moth, affectionately christened Rupert after the cartoon bear in the Daily Express. Dorothy remained in Cairo. (Unlike Katherine in the novel, Dorothy never accompanied Almasy on any of his expeditions.) In an exploratory flight over the highland plateau, Robert caught a glimpse of a twisting wadi with trees and vegetation and speculated that he had found the Zerzura of legend. He reported back excitedly to the men in the cars, but all attempts to find a route in through the stone ramparts of the Gilf were met with failure. Their fuel was now running low and they were forced to return to Cairo, determined, nevertheless, to complete their exploration as soon as they could finance another expedition. Robert, alas, was not to be with them. On returning to England, he fell ill from polio and died soon after. He had been married for less than a year. Broken hearted, Dorothy arranged for a friend to fly her over the English Channel in Rupert to scatter her husband’s ashes into the waters below, a fitting closure for a member of the Royal Navy’s Air Arm.
Despite her grief, Dorothy was determined to pursue Robert’s quest for Zerzura. She won her pilot’s licence and took lessons in surveying and navigation from the Royal Geographical Society. On returning to Cairo, she avoided Almasy’s overtures to participate in his planned follow-up expedition and arranged instead to join up with Pat Clayton (no relative) of the Egyptian Desert Survey who was planning to approach the Gilf through the sand dunes in the north. It was from this direction that Robert’s observations were vindicated. A wadi was found opening out to the north, rich in acacia trees and alive with birdsong, surely the Zerzura of legend.
That same year, Almasy’s expedition was also to make a remarkable discovery: a cave daubed with enigmatic paintings of swimming figures, dating back to an epoch when rain clouds gathered over the Gilf and water pooled amongst the rocks. It was here, in the novel, that Almasy was to bring the mortally wounded Katharine.
Dorothy, however, had already left Egypt and was participating in an expedition to Lapland. On returning to England, she took up flying again, and it was now that the final tragedy struck. Her plane had not been serviced for some time, and as she was taxiing to take off, the throttle rod snapped and her plane spun out of control. In a panic, she struggled to escape from the cockpit and was flung onto the tarmac, fracturing her skull. She died shortly afterwards. It was September, the same month in which Robert had died just a year before.
The English Patient may have distorted the biographical facts but it imaginatively reconstructs the tragic destiny of Katharine/Dorothy while plotting the evasion and cold manners that characterised her relationship with Almasy, the two linked together not by passion for each other but for the compelling magic of the Egyptian desert.