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Book review – King Rat by James Clavell

Updated on February 19, 2011

King Rat is actually the first book ever written by Clavell , although chronologically should be placed on forth place, after Gai Jin. In it, we follow the story of a young Englishman called Peter Marlowe imprisoned in one of Japonese Prison Camp from Pacific. The hero of the book is supposedly based on author own experience. Clavel was a prisoner of war in this specific Prison Camp during World War II.

It is clear that this book was the first attempt of Clavel to write a novel. The story is somewhat linear and lacks the profound implications that are found in his other books. The secondary plots as well as local culture are quite poor reflected. It compensate with a very accurate description of life in a prison camp and a very good understanding of human psychology under intense mental and physical stress.

The book is about survival. The most important feeling that persisted through entire book is hope. It appears at some point that hope to live another day was all that kept people motivated to face extreme challenges. What is impressive is the level of decadence that a human can endure in order to survive. The extreme capacity of human beings to adapt and survive in spite of all the odds. And most of all, the degree of moral and physical depreciation that an artificial environment built with the undeclared purpose of annihilation of your enemies can provide.

The book begins with the encounter between Marlowe and another POW – an American corporal surnamed “King” because of his successful career as a trader inside the camp. The latest decide to use Marlowe in a transaction because of his Malaysian language skills. At first, Marlowe rejected the idea because of his high moral values. But, soon, Marlowe understood that King is not the thief that all other prisoner thought he is, but rather a man that try to survive in the camp in his own particular way. One of the most hilarious yet sad aspect was the fact that survival took place over military doctrine that was supposed to be unbreakable. King is just a corporal, one of the lowest military ranks but, because of his ability to provide money and food he “owns” high grade officers. Although, even in the camp in theory all should respect military hierarchy, King permits himself to indulge by asking some captains to cook him his dinner.

While the link between Marlowe and King begin to grow both of them start to learn from each other and start to appreciate each others qualities. Mean time, Marlowe, because of his new friend is brought in attention of Robert Grey, a captain who is in charge with the military police and developed an obsession about King, hoping to arrest him for violating camp regulations. Although this is the public statement, the real reason that fueled this hate was King’s success, the fact that he had all the benefits that Grey can’t had, food, clothes and medicaments. After some time, Marlowe had an accident endangering one of his arms. Being involved in a large transaction with a diamond, King try to help Marlowe with some expensive and very hard to get medicament but condition this by the success of transaction. At the end, King managed to save Marlowe hand but the latest is caught by Japanese using a radio, a forbidden rule that attracted very harsh penalties. Just before Japanese from camp took action, the pace is declared and all prisoners were about to be released.

The final is impressive and picture another great fear of human being, the fear of abnormality. As long as they are accustomed with their condition and the harsh environment, the outsiders are seen as being abnormal. First reaction of the outside is fear. The only person who is trying to interact with the liberators is King, but because of his healthy appearance is mistakenly treated as a collaborator with the Japanese oppressors. After couple of days the fear of POW diminished and with that all the oppressed feelings of prisoners are released. Some of King’s collaborators are now mistreating him badly, remembering the way that a “corporal” put them to work. This is the second blow for King’s moral and at the end he leaves camp extremely depressed in spite of Marlowe’s attempts of improving his moral.

Nice book overall, not my favorite amongst Clavel’s Asian saga, but still a decent lecture for everyone to have.


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