JOHN BIERMAN IS a journalist and military historian with a knack for turning complicated events into gripping narratives. His short biography of the Hungarian explorer Laszlo Almasy is no exception. The story rattles along at a spanking clip, even when the fact-trail goes cold (a serious problem where Almasy is concerned). Although parts of Almasy's life are well documented, others, especially his politicaI leanings, are much harder to pin down. One senses, too, that the existence of two brilliant but historically inaccurate versions of his life, Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient and Anthony Minghella's film adaptation of it, is an extra nuisance that Bierman could happily have done without.
Almasy was born in 1895 in Castle Borostyanko in Hungary, now Burg Bernstein in Austria. He was packed off in his teens to a crammer in Eastbourne. There he polished his English, neglected his lessons, and qualified for his amateur pilot's licence. Shortly afterwards, with the outbreak of the First