King Rat, James Clavell
Asian Saga #1
First Edition: Marin Joseph, 1962
Original language: English
King Rat follows the lives of the POWs at Changi Prison, in Singapore, during the last weeks of WWII. Clavell was himself a POW at Changi, and the story retells his experience. The story is mostly told through Peter Marlowe, a young British RAF Lieutenant, said to be based on a young Clavell.
The novel focuses on the exploits of “the King,” an American corporal who is the unofficial “rich man” in Changi. Marlowe and the King develop an unlikely friendship that exposes the hardships of life in a POW camp, as well as the adversity faced by family members on the outside.
However, even though every other man seems to hardly scrape by with little food and no medicine, the King truly lives like a King, eating his fill and even having a few creature comforts. While many of the men in Changi face extreme suffering, for example one prisoner contemplates a third amputation on what is left on a leg that will not heal- the second performed without anesthesia- the King owns his own chickens and has more than one pair of real shoes.
Marlowe and the King forge an improbable bond and Marlowe inevitably begins to break camp rules as he starts selling objects to guards on behalf of prisoners, a strictly forbidden practice. As men are forced to do things they would never have believed to stay alive, all of them lose a bit of their humanity, and Marlowe is no exception.
“A man who fails through his own stupidity has no right to be called a man. And no right to be the King, for the strongest is always the King, not by strength alone, but King by cunning and strength and luck together.”
“Without women, Peter Marlowe thought helplessly, men are only a cruel joke.”
“Rule Two: don’t worry about nothing you can’t do nothing about.”
“As it is written in the Koran, without hope, a man is but an animal”
“’I don’t think it matters what you call God. God won’t mind if he is recognized as Jesus or Allah, or Buddha or jehova, or even You!-because if he is god, then he knows that we are only finite and don’t know too much about anything.”
I actually thought that this book was excellent, which is weird because I usually avoid war and/or prison settings, because I particularly dislike both topics. So I thought I was going to hate this book. The reason that I read it was because I wanted to read the rest of Clavell’s Asian Saga, but my obsessive self will NEVER read a book that is part of a series without starting from the very beginning and reading them in order. So I thought I’d breeze through this nearly 400-page baby to get to the good stuff.
Well, this book was the good stuff already. It was extremely well told and the characters and situations were compelling and easy to relate to. I really, really liked this book and can’t wait to read more from Clavell!
After I read this book I wanted to find out more about Changi Prison in Singapore. Despite the horrible conditions, according to Wikipedia, it was one of the best run Japanese POW prisons, with “only” 850 prisoner deaths among the 87,000 prisoners that passed through it. Here are some pictures that I found of Changi and the liberation: