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,

Jarv

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

20 responses to “Jarv’s Favourite Books: King Rat by James Clavell”

  1. just pillow talk says :

    I didn’t your whole review Jarv, since I had picked this up whenever it was that you had mentioned this to me before. I want to go in as ‘fresh’ as possible. I have to get through The Adept series first (on book 2 of 4), then this will be the next book I tackle.

    • Jarv says :

      It’s a great book this one. I haven’t spoiled it (aside from that Changi was liberated) and I’ve been deliberately vague-

      Nevertheless, you’re right as clean as possible is the best.

  2. lbronco says :

    I do enjoy these series, and I appreciate your work.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Bronco.

      I’ve only got a few left before I have to revisit Authors I’ve already done- first of those is Norwegian Wood.

  3. Xiphos0311 says :

    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.

    Huh? How is that whipping up extreme patriotism in support of a belligerent foreign policy usually during war? What war? by ’62 when the book was written WW2 had been over 17 years.

    Isn’t it more likely that blurb on the book jacket is just poorly written marketing goobly gook slanted toward a particular market? I’m pretty sure I could find examples like that on books geared to the English market in about 5 seconds if I tried. Also it really isn’t that far off. Clavell himself has said on numerous occasions, including the books intro if I’m mistaken and according to wiki I not, that he might not have survived if it wasn’t for the American POW that King is based on.

    • Jarv says :

      Sloppy writing on my behalf. Apologies. I actually meant “overly patriotic”.

      No doubt it is a piece of piss poor marketing gobbledegook. My copy is from England, and it’s got that American slant on it. My objection is that the book isn’t like that. It’s bollocks to say “the only man that blah blah blah was an AMERICAN”- when the book is primarily about Marlowe, who survives just as well as the King without becoming institutionalised. I resent sloppy, shitty marketing blurb- it always gets on my wick.

      I’d take anything Clavell says about this book with a mountain of Salt. He’s retrospectively saying all sorts of silly things (the 90% claim) that simply aren’t true.

      This is a cracking book- and there’s no need to say silly things about it like that.

      Good to have you back, Xi. Hope SE Asia isn’t too bad this time.

  4. Droid says :

    What outrageous allegations! We Aussies aren’t thieves! Most likely it was a misunderstanding on Marlowe’s part and the Aussies were helpfully attempting to protect the diamond from falling into the wrong hands.

    • Jarv says :

      Yes, but you’re not taking into account that the King got it from an Aussie who stole it off another Aussie (who I think stole it from an American who stole it from someone else). I really like the Aussies in this, they’re a highly amusing bunch.

  5. Xiphos0311 says :

    Now I can finish my post I started 24 hours ago.

    Yep I agree about Clavell, up to a point, but he is backed up by other prisoners accounts that the American POW was instrumental in their survival.

    Anyways good review i should give this book another read. My Mom and tore through Clavell books when the Shogun mini-series hit but I haven’t read any it since then. I think that was back in like 83-84 something like that.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Wait it had to earlier then 83-84 probably like 80-81.

    • Jarv says :

      Honestly, though Xi- I’m not arguing that The King was instrumental in the survival of many pow’s- he’s the clear line of supply for a lot of vital food etc. What I am talking about is that the copy (which I predictably haven’t got to hand) reads along the lines of “Why one man could survive, and that’s because he was American”. Americans/ Aussies/ Brits do equally well/ badly and nationality has nothing to do with survival.

      Which is fundamentally untrue and a gross misrepresentation of the novel. If anything, The King doesn’t come out as well as Marlowe, or some of the other Americans, because he’s become institutionalised- he’s become King Rat and when freed he’s shattered, almost lost.

      Aside from poorly written marketing drivel, come back to this one- it’s a fucking belting book, and unlike Shogun (which I do really like) etc, not a potboiler. Which is highly unusual for Clavell

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        The thing I find interesting about your argument, besides throwing America under the bus when we had nothing to do with it, is that you aren’t making the correlation that the problem you are experiencing lies in Britain.

        If the book is an English imprint that used and American marketing blurb doesn’t that mean the English printer was too lazy and or uncaring to write something new slanted towards an English audience? Marketing is marketing and will always slant towards the predominant members of the economy they are trying to sell product to. And factor in that the blurbs rarely have much to do with the book I find it interesting this bugged you in as much as it has.

        Here’s an example illustrating what I am trying to say. I recently finished a book where the description on the back cover literally has nothing to do with the book between said covers.
        The blurb made it out to be like a hybrid of historical fiction/light adventure and it was really a slow evolving love story and personal growth/journey story. It wasn’t bad it just wasn’t what I was lead to believe it was going to be. Also the blurbs on the back of everything written by Umberto Eco not named The Name of the Rose aren’t even in the same ball park as what the book was about. Baudolino is perfect example but nearly so is Foucault’s Pendulum. FP at least mentioned conspiracy theory in its blurb.

      • Jarv says :

        It’s annoying me for a few reasons- mostly because I do this shit for a living and it’s heinously incompetent :

        1) I agree completely- it’s lazy, and the laziness of it is at root of what is annoying me.
        2) While it isn’t as completely deluded as some of the marketing spiel that I’ve read, what pisses me off is that this is a story of survival, of surviving as part of a team with your mates. However, the slant is that there’s something intrinsic to Americans that makes survival more likely. This is horseshit. Death in a POW camp doesn’t give a fuck what nationality you are. The King is unique among the prisoners, regardless of nationality- it’s his personality and character that make him what he is. There are just as many grimy and malnourished Americans as there are Brits and Aussies.
        3) It does a disservice to the other non-American characters and implies that they’re subordinate to the King in terms of the story- Marlowe is the main character for fuck’s sake.

        I also agree that it isn’t unique by any means. It’s just a horribly crass, tubthumping example.

        PS- I’m not throwing America under the bus. I would be equally annoyed with any other nation. Just it happens to be America here. My point is that it hopelessly misrepresents the story as something that it isn’t.

        Lazy marketing cunts and I say this as a lazy marketing cunt myself. They clearly went for the easiest point of sale to the American market, and as such did a great book a severe disservice. That they then compound this sin by fucking being stupid and incompetent enough to use the same drivel on the international version means that someone needs a stomp on the gonads.

      • Jarv says :

        I also agree that the problem lies entirely with the Non-US publisher.

        When I used to supply production parts to other territories, I would always get asked for marketing material. I’d release them, but strongly advise whoever to generate their own as ours were territory specific. I lost count of the amount of times the lazy fuckers just went with our stuff.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    I’ve heard the title ‘King Rat’ mentioned dozens of times over the years but never known what the book was about. Sounds good, I’ll have to dig out a copy.

  7. Tom_Bando says :

    Wasn’t Byron Brown(F/X dude) in this?? About the mid-80’s they turned this into a movie. That’s what I remember, anyways. Never did read much of it, waded thru Shogun though. That was enough Clavell for me, to be honest.

  8. UnderDriven says :

    I disagree that Shogun is a “trashy” novel. It may not be great prose, or as authentic as something like King Rat which was based on personal experience, but it does offer genuine insights about Japan, its people, and its history. It is also an interesting and entertaining story–and while not literally true, it is based on actual events from Japanese history. It’s one of my favorite books, and I have read it several times. I have also visited Japan many times, so I’m not ignorant about the culture. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but James Clavell is definitely on a higher level than Dan Brown…

    • Jarv says :

      Hmmm, it’s been a while since I wrote this, but I’ve probably given the wrong impression. I like Shogun, but it is more of a swashbuckling Adventure novel than anything else.

      Agree Clavell at his worst is miles better than Dan Brown. That’s real trash.

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