Friday, July 28, 2006


Lots of sand.

Saul Kelly, The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura (Westview Press 2003).

Saul Kelly has written a solid and respectable, albeit unexciting, history of the exploration of the desert that fills western Egypt, much of Libya, and northwestern Sudan. Equipped with automobiles, Europeans started to venture into these wastes in the 1920s, and their efforts quickened in the 1930s, particularly after Italy invaded Libya, bringing a strategic significance to routes and oases between Libya and the Nile. The exploration continued after 1939, and several of the most accomplished explorers helped to create the Long Range Desert Group, the Desert Rats, who raided far behind the Axis lines through the desert campaign.

Zerzura was a fabled lost oasis, best known now from The English Patient, whose protagonist was loosely based on the Hungarian Count Almasy. Almasy explored the desert in the 1930s, usually from Egypt, but he passed information to the Italians and ended up in the Afrika Korps during the war. Almasy tried his hands at long-range desert operations, including a mission to infiltrate spies into Egypt. Though the Afrika Korps did not match the British successes in the desert, the problem was that there were not more of Almasy. But for this reason, he does not have the stature or depth to bear Kelly’s decision to make him the book’s focus. Kelly does not have the sources to bring him to life.

For that matter, I imagine that the North African desert was a more interesting place that Kelly manages to convey. The telling detail – about the terrain, the natives, the weather, the fauna – is all too rare. Alas, The Lost Oasis turns out to be a little too dry.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?