Monday, May 29, 2017

King Rat by James Clavell

Title: King Rat
Author: James Clavell
Publisher: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. (1962) 

I was delighted when Michael sent an email my way asking if I'd be interested in a reprise of the joint post series for a book that harkens back to a past pick of ours. I think he picked an evocative novel to revisit as we remember the sacrifices of American soldiers who have died in service to their country.

For those that are new to what was once a monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of King Rat 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

King Rat is set in 1945 in the WWII Japanese POW camp of Changi.The King is the operator around whom this novel revolves. He is variously seen as a thief, liar, oppressor, caretaker, and friend. Despite being in a POW camp I don't think anyone ever sees him as a victim, he certainly doesn't. Nor would he think of himself as any of the adjectives I used above.

Peter Marlowe meets the King by chance and they strike up an unlikely friendship. Unlikely not just as regards personality or class, but unlikely in that Marlowe might be the only person to know the King and still think he can have friends. The King is clearly portrayed as having come from a lower class background (though he is American, not British so his views on this would be different than Marlowe's) and his entire world is centered on camp business opportunities. Marlowe is descended from several generations of highly regarded British soldiers.

"Well, I couldn't go into business. Marlowes aren't tradesmen..."

While the King absolutely does not understand non-transactional interactions, Marlowe is bound to a personal honor code that he brings to any friendship. It is against this relationship that we see the last months of the Changi POW camp before liberation.

I wouldn't say I'm an extensive reader of WWII POW camp books but what strikes me every time I encounter one is the absurd normal that evolves for the prisoners. Much of it is easy to see as microcosms of a prisoner's home culture: Factions and alliances form, secret economies are maintained, debts and favors are scrupulously guarded. As a reader, it's easy to fall into these familiar rhythms and, despite it being the daily norm for the prisoners, be genuinely shocked when they don't have food or clothes or medicine. It's the familiar routines of life overlaid on a horrific existence that can take chapters to assimilate. (However, on the one hand, I don't want to assimilate it. I don't want to forget the horror of war simply because people are resilient enough to survive it.)

James Clavell himself was from a British military family and was imprisoned in Changi. This story and its characters are supposed to be fiction but it's hard not try overlay Clavell onto Marlowe and he was inspired by an actual American prisoner for the King's character. Regardless of how autobiographical the novel is, it's undeniable that his experience in the prison camp brings this book to life in a way that is at once searing and disturbing. Even in its touching or lighter moments one can't escape the underlying tension and fear carried by everyone in the camp. It's a gift to readers that those who had these experiences are able (and willing!) to so eloquently share them.

**Note: the rest of this review is spoiler-ish

The King and his entourage (for lack of a better word) - and his enemies - play several cat and mouse games in attempts to maintain power, either through control of resources or control of behavior. This includes the guards (the officer-prisoners) setting up various spying plans to the King's rat breeding program (yeah, that's real!). But what has lingered in my mind far past reading the last page is how in the midst of, again, this horrific experience some people were able to be themselves for the first time.

The King was a fairly obvious one to me. It was pretty clear that he was not going to be happy when the prison camp was liberated. I know how bizarre that sounds but it was certainly where his character was going. Clavell brilliantly reveals this in the juxtaposition of Marlowe and the King's response to the American soldiers who come to extract the prisoners.

The sea welcomed her and made her sleep easy, and then, in the course of time, devoured the clothes and body and the time of her.

It's not heavily explored but often hinted at that several of the prisoners find intimacy with each other who may not necessarily be gay. Also, though, I speculate that many soldiers who were gay but unable to be open about it could explore it here. I'll make no comment on whether that was a positive or a negative considering the prison camp backdrop but Clavell makes a very compelling case that one of the soldiers was transgender and might never have been able to fully accept that outside of the prison camp. This is not exactly a happy book with happy endings but I found it especially heartbreaking that Betty didn't survive liberation.

And that is something that will be on my mind today. So many do not survive. Let's honor them by getting it right next time.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series