Monday, April 14, 2008

James Clavell: King Rat

After a hiatus, I am back to trying to finish my books, A-Z. Yes, I'm still in the "C's". Yes, this is slightly pathetic. Yes, it makes me wonder "will I ever finish?" and no, I don't hold you responsible for doubting me, either. James Clavell's "King Rat" is a book that I must have taken from my dad's shelves years ago, and just have been unable to read or discard. Fortunately for me, because it's actually a great book.

Clavell tells the story of a POW camp during WWII in Singapore. Apparently all the Australians, British, Americans, and various other Allied Forces were rounded up into a small camp and left to rot, guarded by Japanese and Malay forces. They were mainly self-governed, and "King Rat" is a fictional version- not too different from "Lord of the Flies"- of how the men handled themselves during three years of extreme stress. Clavell wastes no time introducing characters or giving background- he throws you into the mess of the POW camp and lets you sort out who is who and what's going on. The writing works, and the horror of the camp becomes routine to the reader, just as it does for the characters. We learn to look out for "The King" as he is both the nemesis and the hope for all of the soldiers: he knows how to work the system and get more food and goods than anyone else in camp. We learn that eating rats isn't really so bad if you don't have anything else. We hate the MP Grey along with the rest of them, and love and hate the Japanese guards.

I've read a lot of fiction about WWII, but this was a new angle. Looking into Clavell for this blog, it seems that the book is only semi-fictional, and that Peter Marlowe, the most clear-headed and "good" character in the book, is a thinly-veiled Clavell. "King Rat" is hard to swallow as fiction and even harder to swallow as auto-biography. Definitely worth reading.