What follows is the story of two British officers whose spirit the Japanese try to break.
Yet out of all the violence and misery strange bonds are forged between prisoners - and their gaolers.
In a battle for survival that becomes a battle of contrasting wills and philosophies as the intensity of the men's relationships develop.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 240 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing
- Publication Date: 03/01/2002
- Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
- ISBN: 9780099428763
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Review by MeditationesMartini
This is a bit of a frustrating book. Its virtues are obvious and many: van der Post clearly has a deep understanding and powerful affection for Japan and its people, and the recurring "moonfolk" image is the exact right kind of orientalism, the kind that uncovers something ancient and true. Less surprisingly, he has a wonderful hand with the landscapes of home (South Africa), and by extension with Palestine and especially Indonesia. And the book's ultimate measure is one of love and life with honour and alongside horror, and that is admirable.But there is a problem. The initial section (formerly a standalone short story), which captures the concordant opposition between Lawrence and Hara like threading a needle or slashing cleanly through the spinal column of an Allied prisoner, is close to perfect. But Celliers (played by David Bowie in the film <i>Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence</i>), who should be so unknowable and thus compelling, gets six or eight times as much space as Lawrence to lay open to us his particular bromance, with Yonoi (I sure didn't realize what an awesome cast it was when I saw this film in the middle of my "Bowie phase" in 1999 - Ryuichi Sakamoto as Yonoi, Takeshi Kitano as Hara, Tom Conti as Lawrence). And he kills the mystery with such perfect Protestant awkwardness, leading at length with the (acknowledged, heartbreaking) story of him and his brother - basically giving it all away at the beginning so he can go on commenting on it flatly for a hundred pages, trying to verbalize the sincerity of the awfully decent, mild, reserved, cool, clenched, coiled-spring killer Englishman that grew out of the two wars and had to try to figure out how to go on in a bottomlessly awful, and worse, a post-Imperial world.And the Lawrence and the nameless narrator get in on the act and suddenly they're all a bunch of emo kids, transported by the action of doing justice to their own feelings in precisely tortured syntax. And you get it: you get why wellbred colonial schoolboys would react to the insanity of war in this way (not by going insane per se, but by becoming - if I may - <i>supersane</i>, which is the next nearest thing). But that's not how decency is gonna survive horror, man; it's just going to leavce you with emptiness and Beckettism or setting stock in that weird mid-20th century Britishy sex philosophy that I wrote about in my <i>Ebony Tower</i> review to save everything. Which results, by the final sex scene, when our unnamed virgin symbol of the salvational feminine says "I expect you will despise me for this," in this reply from Lawrence:" . . . Please know that I understand you have turned to me not for yourself, not for me, but on behalf of life. When all reason and the world together seem to proclaim the end of life as we have known it, I know you are asking me to renew with you our pact of faith with life in the only way possible to us."Don't say it! Just kiss her, ass!You just need to live, I suspect, and laugh at boring jokes and not worry about achieving a consummation and transsubstantiation that overcomes the fact that war is hell. I don't think that latter is necessarily even possible, but maybe if I'd been through the war I'd need it too.