Creating Epic and Accurate Historical Fiction: Lessons Learned from The English Patient and WWII’s Operation Condor
By Samuel Marquis
In Lions of the Desert: A True Story of WWII Heroes in North Africa, Historical Fiction Author Samuel Marquis tells the story of Operation Condor and the Western Desert War, based on recently declassified British and U.S. Military Intelligence records. In May 1942, just before the Desert Fox launched his offensive to drive the British Eighth Army out of Egypt and take the Suez, the German Intelligence Service sent a two-man espionage team to Cairo as part of Operation Condor. The romantic Condor story has been told many times before—most famously in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient and the 1996 Oscar-winning film of the same name—but until recently virtually every fictional and factual account has been historically inaccurate. The reason is simple: the WWII archival materials on Operation Condor have only recently been declassified and most previous researchers have had to rely solely on the unreliable first-hand accounts of the key participants, who had their own agendas. The opportunity to set the record straight and tell the true Condor story was what drew the author to the classic desert tale that has captivated the minds of authors, historians, and filmmakers for the past three-quarters of a century.
Who was the real Captain Count László Almasy—the Hungarian adventurer, flight instructor, and Abwehr agent the Bedouins reverently called Abu Romia, Father of the Sands? In the 1992 novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and the 1996 film of the same name, Almasy reluctantly gives the Germans his desert maps in return for the loan of a light aircraft in order to recover the body of his mistress from a cave. In real life and my book Lions of the Desert, Almasy was an enthusiastic supporter of the German war effort and the architect of Operations Salam and Condor—and quite possibly an Axis spy well before the conflict.
In the 1996 film version, Almasy, played by a Ralph Fiennes, is a disfigured patient in an Italian hospital who had been the handsome young heterosexual lover of an Englishwoman (Kristin Scott Thomas) in pre-war Cairo. Again in real life and in my book, Almasy was a “very ugly and shabbily dressed” man “with a fat and pendulous nose, drooping shoulders and a nervous tic.” Photographs clearly show he looked far more like a gangly, beardless Geoffrey Rush than a strapping Ralph Fiennes. And, as revealed by John Bierman in The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient, he was also a homosexual, counting a young German soldier named Hans Entholt amongst his lovers.
“How far a novelist is justified in bending the facts about a historical personage—even a little-known one like Almasy—to fit a work of fiction is, of course, a subject for hoary debate,” say historians Bierman and Smith in The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point of World War II. “But Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, might easily have avoided any suggestion of misrepresentation by giving his protagonist a fictitious name.”
I agree with Bierman and Smith. In writing historical fiction, historical accuracy should be paramount: the truth must come first and foremost above plotting or modern-day political correctness. A character in a historically-based work, if his true name is used, should not be factually misrepresented as Ondaatje did with his “English patient” to “de-Nazify” the Abwehr operative Almasy and make him more palatable to readers ( as it turns out the real Almasy rescued Jews and worked secretly for British intelligence against the Soviets during his short life). We owe it to the Almasy’s, the Churchill’s, and the Patton’s of history to make accuracy our watchword where there is reliable, or at least reasonable, historical documentation available.
To portray the characters in Lions of the Desert (including Captain Count Almasy) as accurately as possible and to debunk the myths that have plagued the Condor story, I made the historical novel basically a history book that reads like a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure novel. To accomplish the feat, I had to synthesize available records from primary sources from British MI6 files in the British National Archives and U.S. military and intelligence records from the U.S. War Department and Military Intelligence Division, as well as from the most reliable modern researchers on Operation Condor and the Western Desert campaign.
First and foremost, I had to resist the temptation to indulge in the distortions and exaggerations of the dozens of Condor authors, historians, and filmmakers from the past three-quarters of a century. The narrators of the early first-hand accounts, which have been heavily relied upon by subsequent authors, included: Anwar el Sadat, the Egyptian Army officer, nationalist, and later President of Egypt (Revolt on the Nile, 1957); Johannes Eppler, the German spy in the Operation Condor affair (Rommel Ruft Cairo, 1960, later translated as Operation Condor: Rommel’s Spy, 1977); Leonard Mosley, a British war correspondent in Cairo at the time of Operation Condor, who conducted extensive interviews of Eppler prior to the German spy penning his own version of events (The Cat and the Mice, 1958); and Major A.W. Sansom, the head of British Field Security in Cairo (I Spied Spies, 1965). While accurate in many respects and unquestionably entertaining, these subjective first-hand accounts have one fatal flaw in common: they exaggerate the espionage accomplishments of several of the key players in the Condor story and, consequently, draw conclusions that are not supported by reliable historical documents.
Without access to the declassified materials and thus the bigger picture, subsequent writers on the subject—including writers as diverse and esteemed as Anthony Cave Brown, David Mure, Nigel West, and Richard Deacon—were unable to escape the trap of relying heavily on the embellished accounts of the main protagonists. Following in a similar vein, the bestselling historical fiction novels by Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca, 1980, made into a 1989 TV movie) and Len Deighton (The City of Gold, 1992) used both the original sources and the subsequent embellished works as the basis of their books, making for great entertainment but questionable historical accuracy with regard to the significant details of the North African campaign and Operation Condor.
As it turns out, the Condor story needs no embellishment. The real-life protagonists, while admittedly more prosaic than their highly fictionalized doppelgängers, are still fascinating in their own right. With that in mind, I told the story through the eyes of six of the main historical figures who lived through the epic events in Egypt and Libya in 1941-1942: Scottish Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder and leader of the Special Air Service (SAS), a brigade of eccentric desert commandos that raided Axis aerodromes and supply lines; German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the legendary Afrika Korps, who very nearly succeeded in driving the British out of Egypt; Egyptian Hekmat Fahmy, the renowned belly dancer, regarded as a Mata-Hari-like German agent in previous accounts but in fact a far more intriguing and ambiguous character in real life; Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, who was privy to critical Allied secrets in the North African theater and inadvertently played an important role in intelligence-gathering activities for both sides in the campaign; and Major “Sammy” Sansom and Johannes Eppler, the British Field Security chief and the notorious German spy of Operation Condor that Sansom hunted down in cat-and-mouse fashion, both of whose real-life stories are finally told.
To accurately portray the historical figures, I placed the characters where they actually were during a given recorded historical event and use, to the extent possible, their actual words based on recently declassified British and American case files, contemporary transcripts, trial documents, memoirs, and other quoted materials. Like Michael Shaara in his excellent historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, I did not “consciously change any fact” or “knowingly violate the action.” The interpretations of character and motivation remained a part of my overall imaginative landscape, but the scenes themselves and the historical figures were deliberately rendered as historically accurately as a non-fiction history book.
If you have solid documentation on the historical figures you want in your book, you, too, can make historical accuracy your guiding principle in your own historical fiction or historical non-fiction work. But of course, while you’re doing so you must maintain a crisp pace by choosing the most crucial historical events to showcase your characters, the ones that truly define them and portray their strengths and weaknesses in full measure.
But what about that pesky pacing? Don’t worry, you can stick to history and still propel the plot along at a frenetic pace. The key to consistently achieving this goal is to have ample external events that change the character dynamics and upset the status quo; to create characters that are both memorable and lovable specifically because they are real and not fake; and to construct a historical world that is utterly authentic.
In Lions of the Desert, I have selected more than fifty real-life historical events and turned them into individual scenes that tip the scales in favor or against my heroes and villains so that they are nearly always in a state of flux. Most of the scenes are based on known events with specific historical figures present, but a minority are based on incidents that are generally accepted to have taken place but have unfortunately not been documented by history, or that I believe happened under similar circumstances to those described in the book but for which there is no historical record. That is all right.
Whether you’re writing about Count Almasy, John F. Kennedy, or Princess Diana, you’re not going to have a documented record of every minute of a historical figure’s life, so even non-fictional biographies have huge gaps in their historical figure’s records that must be filled and such works take far more artistic liberties than their authors typically admit. To maintain good pacing, you will need not just a few true events, but dozens to maintain the suspense and keep your readers turning the pages. And they will love it even more because it is (as far as humanly possible) true and will, thus, resonate as truth.
The main thing is to keep up a brisk pace by highlighting many defining moments in the lives of your characters, thereby infusing your historical novel with plot twists and turns, while at the same time not purposefully distorting the truth in the false belief that you are making history more interesting or topical relative to our supposedly more enlightened, contemporary era. The true story of any historical figure provides plenty of conflict, tension, and drama, and does not need to be consciously changed to generate more excitement. In fact, in the case of the seven key historical figures in Lions of the Desert—Scottish SAS Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Egyptian belly dancer Hekmat Fahmy, British security officer A.W. Sansom, German spy Johannes Eppler, American military attaché Colonel Bonner Fellers, and Hungarian Abwehr Captain Count Almasy—I would argue that these diverse individuals were in real-life far more interesting than the grossly exaggerated fictitious creations that have filled the pages since WWII.
Don’t be like the scores of Condor writers that have come before or a Hollywood movie—stick to the truth. You can immerse your reader in the exciting world of the past while still propelling the plot along at a furious pace. The key to consistently achieving this goal is to maintain constant tension by selecting the most interesting and life-changing historical events and placing them one right after the other so that the reader doesn’t have a chance to take a breath. Great historical fiction is all about pacing and bringing historical characters to vivid life by highlighting their most stellar real-world achievements and failures. To do that, you must tell their overall true story to the best of your abilities.
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of a World War Two Series, the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series, and historical pirate fiction. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, IPPY, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers Bodyguard of Deception, Altar of Resistance, and Spies of the Midnight Sun to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst. Mr. Marquis’s newest historical novel, Lions of the Desert is the true story of the WWII 1941-1942 Desert War in North Africa and Operation Condor based on recently declassified British Secret MI6 files and U.S. Military Intelligence records. His website is www.samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact JKS Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.