Jarv’s Favourite Books: King Rat by James Clavell
It’s time for me to have a look back through the extensive book collection I’ve got at home and pick out another one of my favourite novels. James Clavell’s King Rat is a book I discovered in my teens, having read my way through the potboilers Shogun and Tai Pan. Both of these books are great fun, Shogun in particular, but reek of airport fiction- they’re the kind of weighty piece of trash that you’d read on the beach somewhere and on return home forget forever. Nevertheless, Clavell penned an entire Asian saga (this is some undertaking, frankly) and both of the aforementioned pieces of enjoyable trash followed distinct and defining events in the Far East. Shogun featured the rise of Toranaga, in 17th Century Japan, and Tai Pan was about the Opium Wars and the foundation of Hong Kong. King Rat, despite being the first book he wrote, is the fourth novel in the series (I’ve not read Gai Jin for some reason) and is a heavily fictionalised account of Clavell’s own time in Changi prisoner of war camp, and is, I believe, vastly superior to the hugely overrated Empire of the Sun (I really don’t like Ballard), which deals with a similar story.
The copy on the back of the edition I own at home is truly laughable. I’m honestly of the opinion it was written for an American market- as there’s a load of stupid (and frankly erroneous) jingoistic guff about the only person able to survive the horror of Changi being American. What nonsense. For a start, the main character of the novel is Peter Marlowe, an RAF officer downed over Malaysia. Secondly, although he does consort with “The King”, it’s extremely debatable to say that The King comes out better than Marlowe, the Aussie Timson or countless other minor characters, and if anything, the King is partially institutionalised. I’m getting a wee bit ahead of myself here, but King Rat is a rich book, open to many interpretations and deals with a fictionalised account of horrendous events that have a real ring of truth to them.
It’s patently untrue to say that King Rat follows a clear central narrative. The theme of the novel is about survival in Changi, and although it does follow a chronological timeline, the book is illustrated and greatly enriched by events involving the minor characters. It opens in 1945, where Flight Lieutenant Marlowe (in his third year in Changi) comes to the attention of an American Corporal known only as the King. Marlowe is fluent in Malay, and his language skills are deemed to be of use to the American, who is the most successful black marketeer in the camp. The book deals with the seminal events in the convicts’ lives culminating with the eventual liberation of Changi by American forces. However, what it really is about is the relationship between Marlowe and the King, as Marlowe changes his upper class British ideology and starts to see the more egalitarian King as not only his friend, but as a role model within the camp.
So, why do I rate this book so highly? Well, it’s an absolutely gripping read. The diamond sale that forms one of the pivotal narratives of the novel is simply gripping, a truly exciting footrace between the guards, the Kings men, and a group of no good Aussie Bushwhackers intent on stealing the gem for themselves. To compound this, Marlowe is recovering from a near fatal dose of gangrene, and the preceding will-they-won’t-they chapters are simply thrilling stuff. The diamond storyline is just one of many examples in this novel, as The King and Marlowe attempt to avoid the attention of Jobsworth Camp Provost Grey- a horrible specimen, but I’ll come to him in a minute.
Secondly, the characters in King Rat are all carefully considered and exquisitely drawn- even the minor characters. Grey is given a horribly kitchen-sink style back story (with a bitter and tragic ending) that only partially explains his hatred of the Officer Class and rigid adherence to petty rules, Marlowe is multifaceted and genuinely complicated, and the Aussies (who could have been comic relief) are all clearly drawn- particularly Timson. The King himself, actually, only has a back story hinted at, but he’s a capable, amusing, egalitarian- he pays fair rates for those that work for him, doesn’t rip anyone off if he can avoid it (he believes strongly that there are 2 sides in every deal), and is as deeply embroiled in any risk taking that the characters undergo. Furthermore, although he’s essentially pragmatic, there’s a degree of sympathy and compassion to him that rounds out a superbly realised character. The British Officer Class, on the other hand, are without exception a vile and reprehensible lot, stealing food, conning their subordinates into giving up vital nutrition and the like. There’s a strong thread of situational homosexuality in the book, and Clavell takes the time to realistically tell the story of two of the more effeminate “women” there: “Actress” Sean, and the Nurse Steven. He takes great care, particularly with the Sean storyline (this is high tragedy), to portray these men as victims- they have compromised themselves and their sexuality in order to survive.
Which, at the end of the day, is what the novel is actually about: survival. The Japanese were not noted for their humane handling of Prisoners of War, and although Changi was historically one of the more gentle POW camps, this is a brutal, almost feral existence. The men have become dehumanised- they wear grass sarongs and home-made shoes, scrabble for every morsel of food and other sustenance. They operate in foraging teams of a designated number- as it’s essential to not only forage the food, but also to protect it. The characters effectively cease to be men: they’ve become animals (as symbolised by the rat commune that the King sells as food), and are only interested in their continued survival.
Clavell notoriously exaggerated the death rate at Changi. Really, though, there was no need to do this. The life the characters live is horrible, and although the death count is remarkably low, the conditions and events of the book have an air of verisimilitude to them that his later statement about “90% of Changi POW’s didn’t walk out” lacks. The struggle with dysentery, for example, which is an omnipresent and debilitating threat, is realistically documented. The truly horrible conditions that these men were living in almost beggar belief. Changi was a tortured environment and as a chronicle of the time, I have to say that King Rat is a compelling snapshot into a world I’m never going to see.
Overall, this is a great book. It’s rich, exciting and meaty enough to sink your teeth into. Forget Empire of the Sun, King Rat is a brutally compelling account of a POW camp, and one that deserves rehabilitation. I recommend this one thoroughly, and hope that it makes a bit of a comeback, because as we get further away from 1945, the memory and relevance of these events is fading for many. King Rat, like other novels of the time, is as a result becoming forgotten, and that, for me, is a shame. Just pretend the film version doesn’t exist (Clavell was severely unhappy with it), and dig out this stellar representation of the brutality that man will sink to in order to survive, and the friendships that can be formed under the most extreme duress.
Until next time,