A True Story of Love and War in Abyssinia
HarperCollins £18.99 sterling
Dashing young Italian Olympic athlete and cavalry officer engaged to beautiful aristocratic heiress finds love in the desert with chieftain’s daughter: could it be a Mills & Boon? No, there’s much more, and it’s a great read. The time is the thirties, and – allowing for some gentle airbrushing of the politics by author Sebastian O’Kelly – it's the acceptable face of fascist Italy. Not to mention that it's biography, not fiction.
Amedeo Guillet volunteered to serve in the ill-fated Italian invasion of Abyssinia, seeing it as a national imperative, rather than as a supporter of Il Duce. Invalided out, his next posting was in the 'unofficial' Italian presence in Spain during the Civil War, after which he returned to Africa Orientale Italiana to lead a locally-recruited cavalry unit. Home on leave, he proposed to and was accepted by his childhood sweetheart and cousin, Beatrice Gandolfo.
When Italy abandoned its 'neutrality' in mid-1940, its African possessions became prime targets for the English fightback after Dunkirk. Mounted on a white horse, Guillet led probably the last cavalry charge against armour, with some success. As the Italians were over-run, he retreated into the mountains with the beautiful Khadija helping him to lead a band of resistance fighters. Eventually, via Yemen, he made his way back to Italy where he married Beatrice, who was aware of Khadija, and after a lengthy post-war diplomatic career the couple settled in County Meath in Ireland. O’Kelly disposes of all that - and Amedeo's return as an honoured guest in 2000 to Eritrea - in an epilogue, his real story being the ten heroic years 1935-45.
At once gentler than a bodice-ripper but with more action than chick-lit, Amedeo evokes a chivalry of war long dead, when enemies (and rivals in love) respected each other. And it's all true.
Mícheál Ó hUanacháin