As I said earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to read fiction that has won Pulitzer or Man Booker prizes, figuring that this is one way to find good books as my time runs out (so few years and so many books!). The last two I’ve read have been very good, and I recommend them both. The second, however, is a MUST READ—a modern classic.
Here’s the “very good” book by Jhumpa Lahiri, one that came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the next year. It’s a collection of nine short stories, almost all of which deal with people of Indian descent interacting with either the West or with Westerners who visit India. Click on the screenshot to see the Amazon listing (only nine bucks for the paperback):
Unlike a lot of Anglo-Indian fiction, much of it packed in books over a thousand pages long, this one has no ambitions to be an epic. Rather, it’s a series of snapshots of human relations and emotions, written simply but beautifully, and not overly concerned (as it was in A Passage To India or The Raj Quartet) by a clash of cultures. Although some claim there’s a deliberate theme to the sequence of stories, that’s above my pay grade, and I appreciated each story as a whole. The best, to my mind, is the title story, which depicts an imagined relationship between an Indian driver/tour guide—as well as an “interpreter of maladies” for a doctor whose patients don’t speak his language—with the mother of an Indian American family he’s driving around India. The driver’s futile imaginings and longings are heartbreaking.
The book sold over 15 million copies worldwide, and that would translate to about an equal number of dollars for the author! Lahiri now writes in Italian, which she taught herself after moving to Italy, and her work is translated back into English. I haven’t read anything she’s written other than this book, but if you want a book you can dip into for an hour here and there, this is the one for you.
But this next book is stunning—stupendous in ambition and achievement. Up to now, I’ve said that the best new fiction I’ve read in perhaps a decade was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2018, and I still think it’s a fantastic book and a classic. But I just finished a novel that I think is even better. It’s this one by Australian Richard Flanagan, published in 2013 and winner of the Man Booker Prize the next year (click on screenshot to go to Amazon link).
First of all, if you don’t like grim scenes, torture, death, or horror, you should avoid it, for the major part of the book depicts what life was like for a group of Australians captured by the Japanese and ordered to build the Burma Railway, also known as the “Death Railway”. Built between 1940 and 1943, the horrible working conditions and draconian treatment by the Japanese guards led to the deaths of over 100,000 men: 90,000 civilians and over 12,000 Allied prisoners. (It was the subject of the novel and 1957 movie “The Bridge On the River Kwai”.) If you can’t stand graphic depictions of maggot-ridden limbs being amputated, people being beaten to death, and men being drowned in shit by falling into communal latrines, this is not for you.
But the point of all the grimness is not sensationalism, but to convey a sense of what it was like and what I see as the book’s main theme and its only depiction of goodness: the idea that although life may be meaningless, one thing that redeems that is people caring for each other. I think this was also the point of Camus’s The Plague.
And at any rate, only about half of the story is about the camp experience, which is sandwiched between the life and loves (or rather, one great love) of the protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian who becomes a doctor. Dorrigo, himself engaged, falls deeply in love with his uncle’s young wife before being transferred to Asia, and the depiction of their love affair, which ends abruptly when the uncle finds out, is gorgeous and heartbreaking. If you want to see the best depiction in words of the psychosis that is the beginning of love, you’ll find it here. (After the war Dorrigo sees Amy, his great love, only once, passing on the street in Sydney, only then realizing that she was all that gave meaning to his life.) The lives of other characters are also described in detail, especially that of Major Nakamura, the evil Japanese camp commander who manages to escape punishment after the war. The plot is intricate, and you’d best read the Amazon summary, though it will be a spoiler
The reason this book is so great, beyond the intricate plot and minute depiction of a of hell on earth which most of us weren’t aware of, is Flagan’s beautiful writing, used to describe the inner life of of every character. This is a book in which just the words themselves convey a sensuous pleasure, and I found myself rereading sentences—something I never do. There are a fair number of literary allusions for those who know their poetry or fiction (at one point the crumbling railway is described in words similar to those used by Shelley in “Ozymandias”), but the language alone is stunning.
The ending, in which Dorrigo, after being a true hero to his men during the war, decides that he’s actually a bad man, while Nakamura, a truly evil man, decides that he’s actually good, is mesmerizing.
It’s a war story, a stirring love story, a story of deprivation, horror, and misery, an internalized monologue of Dorrigo and everyone else, all couched in the most luscious prose—what’s not to like? Seriously, if you don’t read this book you’re missing some of the finest fiction of our era.
As with Lahiri, I haven’t read anything else by Flanagan. I’m not sure that’s bad, as I can’t imagine either could do as good a job as they have in the two books above.
Your turn: I told you my latest favorites, now you can tell us yours.
57 thoughts on “Two pieces of fiction: one very good and the other a classic”
Camus is my philosopher’s touchstone.
Not a classic. Not an award winner. But a short, charming, feel-good novel (and quite well written): A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Nicholas Drayson.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel ‘The Namesake’ explored the immigration experiences of Indian Americans (more specifically, Bengali Americans). It was made into a fine movie directed by Mira Nair and had a sublime performance by the Indian actor Irrfan who tragically passed away in 2020. My introduction to Lahiri’s supple prose was through the short story collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’.
Big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, although she never creates a cheerful character. Unaccustomed Earth is my favourite – powerful writing and very moving.
The London Review of Books has one of its best book reviews ( along with witty riposte from an affronted party ) focus on Tassie Richard’s novel. Enjoy every paragraph : https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v36/n24/michael-hofmann/is-his-name-alwyn
Do note how the philosophical Booker judge’s bon mot of ‘bad haemorrhoid day’ serves as wordplay on the novel’s title.
Well he’s wrong. (Did you read the book?) I’ll raise you this one: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/richard-flanagans-way-intimacy
From Anthony Grayling (who is right):
I peristalted my way up into the mid-southern latitudes of ‘the Narrow Road to the Deep North’, ie quitting well before the equator, alas– roughly for the same reasons as stated in the LRB Review. I forwarded your blog post to a friend, an Aussie who recently retired as Professor of English at University of Auckland. Hopefully he won’t mind me quoting a bit of what he wrote : ‘I tend to agree with the LRB Review, though [ the book reviewer ] enjoys himself too much… I much preferred David Malouf’s Burma Railway novel ‘the Great World’– which I do think is a Great Book, though not as ripe for cinema’.
As for the disagreement on Flanagan’s novel, this difference in relative weightings that go into what we lazily term ‘taste’, was raised very well in the great literary critic James Wood’s essay on another Booker grandee, ‘Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ : a few sceptical thoughts’.
In this essay, Wood perceptively writes ‘Coetzee’s novels self-consciously display an involvement in their own modes of presentation, so that Coetzee will often seem to be telling us what to think about being told what to think….. ‘Disgrace’ is a very good novel, almost too good a novel. It knows its limits, and lives within a wary self-governance. It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel. It is truthful, spare, compelling, often moving, and thematically legible : that is to say, it does not overflow interpretation. It does not quite rise to greatness, in part because of certain formal, cognitive, and linguistic neatness [ …] that is almost successfully subjugated by what is most powerful about the book — its loose wail of pain, its vigorous honesty’.
That long quote from James Wood also paraphrases not just what the LRB critic was peeved about the Flanagan novel, but also applies to it.
Incidentally, with your recent posts on Keyaurastan New Zealand, here’s an anecdote about reading literary fiction in this nation. I managed to read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ during one summer holidays when I was aged ten. The next year, for day 1 at school, the teacher asked us what we did over the break. I said ‘Miss, Miss, I read Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’!’ The teacher stared back at me and replied, ‘Ramesh, in this country children aren’t supposed to tell fibs in school’. This may give readers a flavour of the intellectual tenor of the nation, and is a proximate cause of the Matauranga Maori debacle.
That happens in the USA too; one of the reasons I dropped out of school at 14.
Two of my favourite books are RD Blackmore Lorna Doone and Evelyn Waugh Sword of Honour. The first is a semi-historical novel. It is often said of Thomas Hardy that his books featured the countryside as a character, but I think that Blackmore got there first. Waugh’s book is actually a trilogy, but I feel it is better read as one long novel. My copy was, surprisingly to me, found in a mall in Longmont CO, after fruitless efforts to find it in UK bookshops.
I recently found Unconditional Surrender in a Little Free Library and of course am holding out for books 1 and 2. I hate it when that happens!
I am reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which is excellent, if depressing. For past favorites, my favorite novel is still Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, not surprisingly very different than the film, which would be forgotten if it weren’t for Bogart’s performance.
My favorite recent fiction reads:
A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, based on some true things set in Southeast Asia during WWII, and Australia in later years. A great and moving love story.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, by Hilary Mantel, a rather grim and claustrophobic story of expat life in Saudi Arabia.
Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish. This novel, the first by Gordon’s son, is as intense, raw, and violent as literature gets. Shell-shocked American soldier boy meets refugee Han-Uyghur farmer girl. Sparks fly.
Will absolutely be checking out Richard Flanagan next, yet another famous author I’d never heard of.
I also very much liked “Preparation for the Next Life,” It’s a bit hard, but very intense and really grabs you. There is a glimpse of hope at the end.
The dialog and scenarios are so hard and so real one gets the sense that Atticus (a former US Marine and cage fighter) must have spent hundreds of hours walking those mean streets with a hidden recording device. I’ve already re-read the thing, an action reserved for top-tier fiction. Seems ripe for a screenplay too — as Gordon Lish’s son he likely has letter-of-marque access to that world as few others do, the bastard.
I LOVED The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Absolutely brilliant! Also liked the Lahiri. BUT, I could not stand the Doerr🙈(ducking…free speech😬) I found it unbearably treackly. It is being made into a mini-series…
I give up. What is the Doerr?
All the Light We Cannot See?
O, right. Duhr. I’ve only read Cloud Cuckoo Land which was fair to middlin’.
Thanks for confirming. That was my overall impression from all the reviews I read/heard about it, so I didn’t go looking for it. I really like Lahiri, and still have some to read. I have a copy of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, but like so many others, its still waiting to be read. : (
I’ll have to try The Narrow Road to the Deep North, since you loved it, Merilee I did love ATLYCS, and liked Klara and the Sun, both of which Jerry recommended. I recently listened to The Interpreter of Maladies as an audio book.
I’m reading The Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms. It’s chock full of interesting tidbits, like alternate endings, alternate titles and three introductions by different Hemingways, including Ernest’s own that he wrote for the illustrated edition that was published in 1948. It’s a terrific introduction, and this bit was especially good.
I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.
The author of this book would be very glad to take charge of this shooting…
I think it was reader Ken Kukec who on another “book post” said it was his favorite Hemingway novel and it’s one of the few I haven’t read. Last week I was in the mood for Hemmingway, so decided on this one. I’m about half-way through, and so far I’m blown away by this novel (sorry for the bad pun).
Before this, I was on page 125 of Gravity’s Rainbow and I just couldn’t see the point and put it back on the shelf…something I never do.
I must heartily concur with you on GR: as a lifelong Joyce/Kafka/Nabokov (the holy trinity of 20th c fiction) fanatic, he gets recommended to me a lot. I struggled thru Lot 49 and Vineland and remember nothing about them, not even whether I finished or not — a Very Bad Sign. To quote Dorothy Parker on Atlas Shrugged (a doorstop I’ve read twice just because it’s so goddam WEIRD, and also pretty exciting): “This is not a book to be set aside lightly — it should be thrown with great force.” Same goes for the excremental Tom Robbins and even worse Confederacy of Dunces (I forget who wrote that lukewarm mess).
For me Hemingway’s high water mark is In Our Time.
“…and remember nothing about them…”
That’s the litmus test for me. I do my best reading in the morning, hung-over or not. I discovered that reading Pynchon in the morning, fresh and sober or dim and hungover, was like reading something blacked-out drunk…can’t remember a thing. Maybe that’s his talent. LOL!
Actually, The Sun Also Rises is my favorite Hemingway novel, although I think his best writing is to be found in his short stories, especially the earlier ones from the 1920s and early 1930s.
Anyone interested in diving into Hemingway can’t do better than the anthology The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. (“The Fifth Column” — set during the Spanish Civil War, as was Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls — was the only play Papa ever wrote. When I first read it, I assumed it to be a “closet drama,” meant to be read rather than performed, but have since learned that it’s been staged a couple times, once for a short run 1940 — Papa disliked that version so much he tried to have his name taken off the playbill — and again, earlier this century, using Hemingway’s original script, by the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving overlooked plays.)
Thanks for the correction, Ken. I apologize since I’m sure you wrote The Sun Also Rises was your fave in the reply I misremembered. And I agree that EH is at his best in the short story form. It’s been too long since I’ve read SAR to compare. I read that in an English writing class or some such in a community college. I was skating the class, and didn’t dig in.
Thanks for the anthology link…another one for the shelf. I’m interested in this play he wrote. Hemingway dialog is really weird sometimes. I think his greatest flaw (as a man or writer, I don’t know) is how fast his characters seem to fall in love. In most of his novels, he creates characters that fall head over heels in minutes. Good drama, sure. Not so realistic, but then again, wartime is a whole different reality.
In the FTA introduction I mentioned, he said that Jim Joyce (while drunk) asked him if his writing was too suburban. An interesting question. I don’t understand what too suburban means from a society in Joyce’s time. Something to learn.
I like A Farewell to Arms, too, just not as much as The Sun Also Rises.
I reread A Farewell to Arms a few months ago, which I may have mentioned in the earlier thread, and which might be the cause of the confusion.
I recommend “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka. It was hard to put down, so I read it in (almost) one sitting
Narrow Road to the Deep North was good, but I didn’t think it was as good as his earlier Gould’s Book of Fish.
I’ll confess that I regard books as being in one of four categories…
a) Classics. I naturally resist reading these since my tastes rarely align with others. I mean, Moby Dick.
b) Books of one chapter. I buy or borrow a book with promise but if I am not caught up in it within the first chapter I cast it aside. Or if it is too graphic.
c) Stunningly good books that I recommend to others but can’t bear to read a second time. For example Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
d) Books that I read again and again. At one time these were mostly science fiction but then this swerved into fantasy and then swerved again into historical fiction with crime, supernatural, or romantic elements.
But do read Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
I’ve found that my tastes in fiction rarely align with everyone else’s as well. I dunno how I managed to plow through Moby Dick but never again! The last decade or so I’ve read mostly nonfiction science, but since covid I’ve felt the overwhelming need to revisit my childhood via TV, movies, and books. This means I’ve reread Bradbury, some Asimov and Clarke, but especially Stephen King, who was particularly important for me in my pre-teen to teen years. I read and owned every book he wrote up to about 1996, and I find he is still enjoyable. I’ve realized that I need fiction to break from reality, be it sci-fi, horror, or Rushdie’s Magical Realism. I’ve had enough of real reality anyway.
I’ve read Moby Dick at least 8 times and consider it (one of) the GAN(s). And Ulysses 12 or so, Finnegans Wake 3ish (once out loud, pausing to laugh til I cried), Gulliver’s Travels about 10, Catcher in the Rye at least 10, Beckett’s trilogy thrice, the Aubrey/Maturin series 4, everything by Kafka and Hugo and Flannery O’Connor, and pretty much no fiction at all by any authors you named (I have sampled the insanely prolific Asimov’s science writing, and went thru a Heinlein period long ago)… point being, it’s not that I want a goddam medal for being a litsnob, it’s to say, je suis d’accord with your first sentence. I do read a ton of popular science, however.
Tell me your favorite King book and I’ll have a crack at it.
Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorites. I think I must have been 14 when I read it, around the same time I read 1984. At that age, those novels really hit me in all the right places. In college I read many Joyce short stories but I’ve never been able to read all of UIysses (the copy of which I see before me, purloined from an ex) although I do sometimes get a bit drunk and read passages aloud to my cat in my best fake Irish accent. I am embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Beckett, Kafka, Hugo, or O’Connor, but I have recently read a few Heinlein, checked out from the eponymous public library, as I live in the shitty little burg of his birth. But what King novel to try? I don’t really know. My first was Four Past Midnight. I captured my 12 or 13 yr old mind, but I couldn’t say why. Most everyone knows The Shining, or Cujo, Per Semetary, or It. Dolores Claiborne is pretty good, and Misery (great as a book and movie) but maybe Different Seasons is the best to sample, with four short stories, the three best are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and The Body.
Besides King, the last year I read the Island by Huxley, Frankenstein by Shelley, Dracula by Stoker, and a whole mess of H G Wells and what an absolute delight that was! Happy reading…
“Tell me your favorite King book and I’ll have a crack at it…”
I’ll jump in here. If you like the vampire genre, check out Salem’s Lot…it’s his second novel, writing it while living in a trailer park, working as a high school teacher (iirc) trying to raise his first kid and drinking a lot of whiskey. It’s a hoot. A combination of mystery with coming of age and prodigal son themes and of course, vampires, what’s not to like?
As far as his best work as a writer, it has to be The Shining if we’re talking novels. That’s some serious good writing and I don’t think I’ve found anything better in the horror genre. He’s a master short story writer as well, and I don’t think you could go wrong with Night Shift
I put Salem’s Lot first since you’ve never read King and it’s just a lot of fun. Think of a young horror writer in his 20’s with a LOT of juice he just can’t wait to show the world, throwing it down on the page in effortless story-telling wonderment.
I love Frankenstein! Much better than Stoker, I think, plus Shelley’s own life story is so amazing. My sci-fi exposure is sadly limited but I do recall being floored by Octavia Butler, and some of PK Dick’s stuff… and one of the first books to really blow my mind, Flatland, which is more math-fi… HG Wells is great as well, and Verne (so many books, so little time!). I guess Slaughterhouse 5 and Atlas Shrugged sometimes get filed under sci-fi too. And I cannot recommend Gulliver’s Travels too highly — wildly entertaining stuff from 1726!
After posting the King comment I remembered two things: long ago I read and enjoyed the Richard Bachman collection whilst having no idea RB was SK; and that whenever possible I like to read authors in chronological order (same goes for musical works, and even art). Thanks for the recommends though.
At one time Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ was the book I loved and re-read the most, but this has now been replaced at the top of my affections by Stephen King’s ‘Duma Key’.
In historic fantasy I’ve cherished and reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘The Curse of Chalion’ many times.
Not only is The Curse of Chalion awesomely awesome but, other than the Lord of the Rings, it is the best-written fantasy novel I’ve ever read. She maintains what I somewhat imprecisely call the “high tone” of the novel throughout. Amazing!
Better’n All the Light We Cannot See, you say? OK, got me sold. I’ma pick up a copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North this weekend.
I think you’ll enjoy it, Ken, though it’s not exactly cheering.
My favorite local bookstore didn’t have it in stock, and the local library has it only in e-book format, but put in an interlibrary loan request for me for the hardcopy. I’m planning to get started as soon as I get the call that it’s in.
Mr. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was tough going in parts, too, but I dug it anyway.
Anyone who loved “All the light we cannot see” should read his latest ,”Cloud cuckoo land”
Now you’ve made me think of the scene in Lina Wertmüller’s WWII masterpiece Seven Beauties in which the anarchist concentration camp prisoner played by Fernando Rey commits suicide by diving into a latrine.
It is a scene that, once viewed, is not easily forgotten.
Though not a “recent” favorite, I often hearken back to Pynchon’s “Against the Day” which I first read in 2007. I think the book rewired my brain in some way. Whether you pick up the 1100-page tome or not, I highly recommend the NY Times review here: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/books/review/Schillinger.t.html
Sean B. Carroll’s book “Brave Genius” is truly great. Reads like a novel and tells the amazing story of the intertwined lives of Jacques Monod and Albert Camus, the French resistance, biology, philosophy, and much more. https://www.seanbcarroll.com/brave-genius-story .
Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” is a great novel.
His Bewilderment is well written but nothing like as good.
I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s Victory City. It is starting out good.
It’s on my pile of “need to reads”, plus some of his older books I felt compelled to buy last week. Midnight’s Children, for example, just arrived in the mail two days agoCan’t wait to get stuck in, but I’m still in the middle of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (WEIT reader recommended). I need to hurry up and win the lottery so I can stay home and read instead of waste all that time at work.
The two new Cormac McCarthy look interesting & sciency enough to count as lablit.
What is lablit?
I enjoyed 50 Years Of Rolling Stone not so much for the great writing, although some is quite good, but rather for the trip (pun intended) down memory lane.
About a month ago, I read “The History of Mr Polly” by H.G. Wells. I quite enjoyed reading it. One particular passage reminded me of someone. Here is the passage:
“Mr Polly was particularly charmed by ducklings. They were piping about among the vegetables in the company of their foster mother, and as he and the plump woman came down the garden path the little creatures mobbed them, and ran over their boots and in between Mr Polly’s legs, and did their best to be trodden upon and killed after the manner of ducklings all the world over. Mr Polly had never been near young ducklings before, and their extreme blondness and the delicate completeness of their feet and beaks filled him with admiration. It is open to question whether there is anything more friendly in the world than a very young duckling.”
I will read the Flanagan book.
One of the few sentimental traits I possess is the belief that it is important to be aware of the horrors that previous generations had to cope with. I’ve no doubt that this has to do with a desire I have to understand my own family. I’m sure it’s also due to a (silly and completely irrational) need to assuage my guilt for escaping the dreadful things that they had to live through.
My grandparents and their parents were hit really hard by the 1st and 2nd World Wars. My paternal great grandfather died on the Western Front in 1915, leaving my grandad and siblings without a dad, surviving on a tiny war pension. My grandad was super smart, and he built up a huge personal library of maths and physics books (which I now have). But to support his family, he had to leave school at 13 to become a plasterer, at 16 he also became a very good professional boxer. I can’t think of two tougher jobs! He then had to fight in WW2.
All my grandparents lost siblings in the war, my grandmothers went through hell during the blitz. I was a friend of the oldest British survivor of the Somme until he died about 20 years ago.
I also knew a former Japanese POW until he died about 6 years ago. He got married a week before he left for the Far East in early 1942, they didn’t even get off the ship before they were nabbed by the Japanese. He then spent nearly 4 years in a Burmese prison camp being flogged, starved, abused, locked in latrines for days or weeks. Every day they took POWs out for execution, sometimes mock, sometimes real, so they all lived in constant fear. He was a lovely, gentle guy, but he hated anything Japanese until the day he died. Happily at least, he returned in early 1946, and his wife was there waiting.
This was just a slightly soppy way of saying I think books like this are important. We should never forget the horrors people had to endure, and understanding these experiences is so important. I feel that the further we all drift from being in touch with that generation, the closer we get to repeating the horrors. It worries me that we are losing that awareness, and that can’t be good.
As there’s a serendipitous amount of references in this thread to WW2 Japanese executions, this nonfictional ( so far as I know ) story from my family may be of interest. My maternal great grandfather was a lawyer in colonial Malaya, who eventually became Crown Prosecutor ( native ) of Wellesley Province just before the invasion. Something like a district attorney in US parlance. There were two parallel legal streams in colonial Malaya, where basically only White lawyers could prosecute White offenders, while non-White lawyers in British service dealt with much of the remainder.
The Japanese took over the British civil service of Malaya, but they had no use for a non-White ‘Crown Prosecutor’. So the Japs made my great grandpa into a local executioner for Penang Island, under pain of death if he refused. The Japanese were more than happy to behead or shoot Whites, or British army POWs of any colour, but executing civilian Malays, Chinese, or Indians was generally considered beneath them. That’s what he did, apparently with a hacksaw rather than a fine sword to do the deeds. After the surrender, the British didn’t prosecute him for war crimes as they were apprised of the circumstances. The chap was pensioned off, but spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum.
Almost none of the western literature of the Burma railway, or the Pacific War generally, deals with stories such as these, of the more numerous ‘native’ cogs in the imperial service. Probably wouldn’t sell in the western literary market. The obvious honourable exception is Sri Lankan Canuck Michael Ondaatje, who has a Sikh character in the ‘English Patient’.
Thanks for your reply. It reinforces my impressions of those I knew who were involved in the 2nd world war. Countless millions were consumed by the industrial scale war mobilisations made by all belligerents, and almost all were powerless to do anything other than fight, kill and die. This applies to all sides, not just the allies.
It also applies to those who were forced into violence through the tyrannical and inhuman behaviour of their leaders. Your grandpa is just one victim of the horrendous evils that proliferated across SE Asia during the early 1940’s. I can’t imagine what people like your grandpa had to go through, or what the people from my family had to go through. But this is exactly why I feel first hand accounts of these dark times are so important.
Finally, I would like to ask that if you know of any relevant sources dealing with these horrors from the Japanese, Burmese, Malayan or Papua New Guinean perspectives, I would love to hear about them.
Thanks for sharing this interesting story.
I’m slowly re-reading all the books in the library now it is unpacked. Recently read John Buchan’s Witch Wood, which is a fascinating tale about a newly-ordained young minister in the Kirk of Scotland at the time of the Civil War. If I say it involves the 1st Marquess of Montrose (look him up in Wikipedia – quite the hero!) and pagan doings in the wood, you’ll see it must have been fun for Buchan to write! Quite a change from his usual. And now I have just enjoyed The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Please ignore the movie, as it could not begin to include all the complexities of the novel. Consciously written as a Victorian novel, yet the author keeps breaking the fourth wall, which is why, I imagine, it is classified as metafiction. There are even three alternative endings! Best of all for you, PCC(E), is that the main character is an atheist, a believer in evolution and a fossil hunter. It is a delight to read something written by an intelligent writer like Fowles, so I have now moved on to The Magus in its second incarnation with the (slightly) less mysterious ending. I have an A J Cronin and then three of Mrs Gaskell’s lined up next.
I don’t have specific recommendations this time, but I do want to say that I really appreciate these posts. I always end up ordering books based on the tips I get here, and have yet to be disappointed.
Try Manu Joseph, Serious Men.
I am about to start Phase Six by Jim Shepard
The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy was interesting as a scifi novel…
Oh & The Deadly Balance by Adam Hart is brilliant & important on the relationship between humans & animals that eat us.