The Railway Man: A POW’s Searing Account Of War, Brutality And Forgiveness, by Eric Lomax
Although I did not consciously intend it to happen, this book makes for an interesting selection to read in light of the book I had finished just before that was also a World War II memoir about the experiences of a railway-building POW. When one has multiple accounts of the same events and one can compare them, it makes for fascinating reading. In this case, I found the book to be a worthwhile one although the author seems to have grossly overestimated the spiritual insight and emotional maturity he possessed later in life. To be sure, the author is open about his struggle with PTSD, but it seems as if he is blaming his early and severe religious beliefs for giving him a lack of emotional maturity, even as he simultaneously praises those beliefs for giving him the spiritual strength to endure life as a POW. Overall, this book is a very formal and cerebral one that talks about the experience of someone who spent most of their time as a prisoner of war serving as a political prisoner for his role in building a radio to pick up the news of Japan’s change of fortunes, where it was thought by the Japanese that he and others were communicating with outside the prison.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages and it tells a much broader story than one may initially think about the author. The author begins with a discussion of his childhood and the influence of both of his parents as well as his own youthful joining of a strict Baptist sect and his engagement with a young lady he met there. Throughout the beginning of the book, the reader is aware of a Greek tragedy as the author’s interest in railroads and signals end up becoming elements of his impending doom. The middle part of the book then shows the author struggling with the horrors of being a prisoner of war in Thailand and seeking to use his cleverness to avoid being put to death as a spy while in prison in Singapore. After some illnesses and recovery the author finds himself freed at Japan’s surrender, but then at a loss for what to do in life so he continues to work in the colonial service as Ghana nears its independence and then retires young and finds other work to do while his first marriage falls apart and he struggles with the psychology of the trauma survivor. The book ends poignantly with the author as an elderly man seeking to come to terms with what the war meant for decent Japanese as well.
In reading this book, one gets a sense not only of the life of someone who became a prisoner of war out of misadventure, as a signal officer sent to Malaya just in time to get captured by the Japanese, who he was told were nightblind, but also the factors that led him to volunteer for service in the first place and the way he dealt with being a survivor in a marriage that gradually fell apart. The author seems not to take sufficient responsibility for himself here, not specifically for what happened in war, but for his inability to get along with his stepmother and in his attempts to pass off much of the blame for the failure of his first marriage on his wife, who could not have been pleased to have gotten engaged to a naive young man and married a broken former POW with a vastly more (if unsurprisingly) cynical view of life. This book is written with what the author claims of is forgiveness, but the forgiveness that we see in the book is mainly directed at an interpreter who appears to have been a decent person after all and who sought to get the Japanese to reflect on their barbarous World War II deeds. The forgiveness that would be better would have to extend far beyond that.