This harrowing story is read beautifully by David Atlas; his tone is a bit flat as he reads in a plaintive voice, a bit dreamily, which is in stark contrast to the story he tells as he speaks of the violent nightmare existence the POW’s of WWII were forced to endure. This is the story of Dorrigo Evans who was an Australian Prisoner of War, one of many, thousands of whom died building the Japanese Railroad lines in Siam, “the death railway”, also known as the Burma/Siam Railway (Thailand/Myanmar today). Dorrigo was the camp doctor, forced to make choices that were impossible to conceive of, demanded by a people bent on conquering the world under their flag of The Rising Sun. Born in Tasmania, he grew up to become a surgeon and a soldier. This is Dorrigo’s story from Tasmania to Siam, Burma, the POW camps, and eventually an elusive freedom, as he grew from a young man to the officer forced to make life and death decisions for others, under the most horrific conditions, to a man nearing the end of his life looking backward over his shoulder at the life he lived, the mistakes he made, the secrets and lies that changed his life and the lives of others.
Dorrigo Evans addresses his life with honesty. He speaks of his many forbidden love affairs, of his inability to be truly monogamous and believes that although he had engaged in sex with many women, he had never “slept” with any of them and had therefore, remained true to his wife, Ella. During the war, he met his one true love, Amy, who happened to also be the wife of his Uncle, a woman symbolized by a red camellia and an unforgettable, forbidden affair. Dorrigo questions the meaning of love and fidelity, war and peace. The memories of the war cling to Dorrigo Evans. One soldier who bleeds to death and another that is beaten to death haunt his nightmares. He remembers the violence, the humiliation and the shame.
Dorrigo is a hero of sorts, but he doesn’t believe he is, and he is tortured by his memories. As he looks back on his life, there are two distinct stories, one is about the Australian POW’s and the other about the Japanese guards. Thousands of POW’s suffered and died at the hands of the Japanese who did not obey the Geneva Conventions (the first of which was created in 1864), who overworked, starved and beat them without any of the normal constraints of human decency. His memories are painful, and he cannot free himself from the guilt he feels for the death of some of his fellow soldiers, for his inability to do more for them.
The author paints the horrors of war for the reader’s eye. The descriptions are so detailed and meticulous in their presentation that the viciousness of the enemy is perfectly captured along with the image of the helplessness of the prisoners, in the face of the barbaric treatment to which the Japanese subjected them, tormented them, in the name of their Emperor’s honor. It is a travesty to consider the abuse of prisoners as a matter of honor. As the story is told, the reader is forced to visualize and interpret the world in which the POW’s and the Japanese soldiers inhabited. In presenting both sides, the Australian soldiers who were POW’s and the Japanese Soldiers who were their captors, the author makes it hard to feel any sympathy for the Japanese. The hero and the enemy are clearly defined and there is no room for doubt as to which one behaved more honorably, even though there were moments of ignominious behavior on the part of both sides. The scales of detestable behavior weighed more heavily on the Japanese. Honor apparently meant and still means different things to different cultures.
Both Japanese barbarism and nationalism leapt off the page. They believed they were the strongest race and would win the war for their Emperor. There is no other choice because defeat was simply not an option for a Japanese soldier. Death was considered preferable and many chose to die rather than be captured during the war, and then again, at war’s end. It was considered an honor to die for the Emperor, and they actually believed that the prisoners should also consider it an honor to die for the Emperor, to suffer the travails of their captivity for the honor of serving him.
After the war, many returned damaged, changed, some were even ashamed of their behavior, but some Japanese remained proud of their hateful conduct, unable to recognize that it had been evil. Many of those who believed in the old ways, still believed their heinous actions were committed in the name of the their divine Emperor, and so they justified their cruelty and glorified it. Many got away with their war crimes, and it is really hard to fathom the reasons why they would not have been punished, why the countries involved wanted to simply forget the past and move forward, often without punishing those who were so barbaric and cruel.
The book parallels the lives of the Australian and Japanese soldiers, their personal beliefs in justice, honor, morality and ethics. They had contradictory feelings about the war and its execution. It illustrates the hypocrisy of some of the accommodations made to the war criminals while others even less guilty were punished more harshly and even put to death. The descriptions of the degradation of the prisoners by the Japanese are graphic and difficult to read as they conjure up images which will fill the reader with revulsion.
Contrasting images are juxtaposed to reinforce the meaning of the events being described. Colors are a major theme in the book. Red is of particular significance with certain scenes. The red of a flower is balanced against the red of blood, and the contrast is chilling. Yellow and gold take on different meanings when referring to the fat in a human body or the color of graceful fish. Water is used to express both the beauty of life and the horrors of death. He writes of the loyalty the soldiers felt toward each other and contrasts it with his own disloyal behavior toward his uncle as he engaged in the illicit love affair with his wife. Love is contrasted with hate, truth compared with lies and the ways in which lives are altered by them, loyalty with infidelity, honor with dishonor and the ways in which those same words are viewed by different cultures, life with death, dreams with nightmares. There is a quality to the narrative that makes the book easy to listen to, but the subject matter makes it very hard to take. In the fog of war, there are many horrific scenes, and all of the characters seemed to suffer from their war experiences in one way or another. Their lives, more often than not, ended in tragedy, and many times it was as if by simple chance.
The narrow road that the POW’s were forced to build, left death and destruction in its wake as did the war and the warmongers who waged it.