History changing characters, attracted to multiple: Ben Macintyre


New Delhi: The British author, Ben Macintyre has bought some extraordinary historic stories from his penchant. An American prince in 1830s Afghanistan, the notorious but unlikely double agents of the Second World War and the Cold War, a corpse that deceived the Nazis, a famous German philosopher’s sister trying to set up a colony in the 19th century South America are some of them.

Macintyre said in an interview, “I am attracted to double, different characters, complex characters, of some unlikely people in unexpected settings.’’ Macintyre wrote 10 books on history, including biography of Ian Fleming and the latest one on double spy ‘Kim’ Philby.

The British historian and author came here for Jaipur Literature Festival.

His debut “Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche” (1992) is about Friedrich Nietzsche’s sister. It tells her attempt  to set up a German colony in Paraguay “racially pure” and vegetarian in the 1880s. It tells about the twist and turns in her own theories on race and nationalism to create a distortion in her theory -broke by Hitler and the Nazis to their own ends.

Macintyre told that he worked on these topics by the motif of “unlikely people, with a rich vein of eccentricity, who willingly convert themselves in a new culture”.

After “The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth” (1997) and “A Foreign Field” (2001), about four British soldiers, who cut off behind enemy lines in France during World War I, lived in a village for over an year before being betrayed and shot as spies, he returned to this theme of “transplanted” people.

“The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan” (2004) is the story of Quaker Josiah Harlan (1799-1871), who reached British India and became an army surgeon, served Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then found himself in Afghanistan, where he became the prince of Ghor and raised the American flag on the Hindukush range during an expedition.

Macintyre says that he got to know about Harlan’s name in a historical piece on Afghanistan, which is related to the American invasion of 9/11, dug into research including reading his memoirs which are unpublished and “possibly unread”. Harlan’s went back home and died in poverty.

“Harlan was an extraordinary, complicated figure. He was not an obvious hero… was a very tricky and difficult man,” he said.

He also told about his trilogy of World War II deception operations. “Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman” (2007) is about a British conman who was captured by Germans and made him agree to work for them and give wrong information to his handlers, even in face-to-face encounters.

“Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II” (2010) is about a varied cast including an eccentric RAF officer, a gifted Jewish barrister, a famous forensic pathologist, a gold prospector, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submariner, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral, and a dead Welsh tramp’s  plan that convinced Germans that the Allies were poised to conquer Greece, not Sicily in 1943.

“Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies” (2012), which illustrated Germans on the Normandy landings, has an equally strange cast – a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard, and a hysterical Frenchwoman.

Macintyre said that there are a lot of books on these events but mostly were not based on documented evidence but  “propaganda” written post-war. “It was a huge amount and full of details… very interesting,” he said.

“A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” (2014) is on the British spy who worked  long for the Russians.

“Philby was a double character who was the spy in the enemy camp who ended up running it, but always remained a puzzled character,” he said.

Macintyre said, ’’Philby figures in several novels and his life was so extraordinary that it didn’t need a fiction and if his life was presented as fiction them it is hard to believe.’’(IANS) (image:jaipurliteraturefestival.org)