Wednesday, September 12, 2012

King Rat: There will be no GIFs (well maybe just one)

For those of us who have not been prisoners of war, James Clavell does a pretty damn good job filling us in on what we've been missing. He drops us right in the middle of life at Changi, a Japanese prison camp in Singapore, where Clavell himself was a POW during World War II. Changi was home to 50,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, American, and Canadian prisoners.
"The men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived." (p. 7)
Even in this setting, life goes on . . . complete with varying religious preferences, class and rank distinctions, social politics, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And at the top of the haves is an American man identified only as "The King," thought to be based on a prisoner named Theodore Lewin, who reportedly saved Clavell while they were both interred in Changi.

In a world where men can survive only in units of two or three, the King is an exception. He has managed to thrive on his own in the prison camp, finding ways to trade even though it's forbidden by the Japanese guards (sometimes even trading with the guards themselves). He is well connected and well supplied with food, cigarettes, clean clothes, and toiletries. He relies on no one. And that doesn't make him overly popular.
"The whole of Changi hated the King. They hated him for his muscular body, the clear glow in his blue eyes. In this twilight world of the half alive there were no fat or well-built or round or smooth or fair-built or thick-built men. There were only faces dominated by eyes and set on bodies that were skin over sinews over bones. No difference between them but age and face and height. And in all this world, only the King ate like a man, smoked like a man, slept like a man, dreamed like a man and looked like a man." (p. 12)
Australian POWs at Changi

So when we pop into the narrative, the King has been carrying on for quite some time without any true friends in the camp, and he's content with that. He even kind of likes it.

Enter Peter Marlowe (allegedly based on Clavell himself), an English officer who speaks fluent Malay and has a rich laugh. It's those qualities that catch the King's notice and lead to a friendship between the two men. Marlowe participates in some of the King's schemes, but he adapts to the cynicism and cruelty of camp life reluctantly. And he PINES beautifully.
"He looked out at the camp, seeing the sun beat the dust and the wind pick up the dust and swirl it. The swirl reminded him of her.
He looked away towards the east, into a nervous sky. But she was part of the sky.
The wind gathered slightly and bent the heads of the coconut palms. But she was part of the wind and the palms and the clouds beyond. . . .
Once more Peter Marlowe looked up into the sky, seeking distance. Only then could he feel that he was not within a boxa box filled with men, and men's smells and men's dirt and men's noises. Without women, Peter Marlowe thought helplessly, men are only a cruel joke. And he bled in the starch of the sun." (pp. 63-64)
And that womanless existence adds another interesting dynamic to prison life. The openly gay men in the camp take on feminine rolesfor example, acting as nurses in the hospital. But what's more incredible than that is that the other men in the camp, in their desperation for female companionship, willingly view the more effeminate men as women and behave toward them as they would toward women. They participate in a sort of active delusion. The most fascinating example of this is a man named Sean, who's special task in the camp is to play the female roles in all the camp plays. He embraces this assignment so entirely that he dresses as a woman at all times and even lives separately from the rest of the men, in a room with a lock on the door. With just a little nudge, his male identity disappears entirely.

Of course, in all this, there's a linear plot and several subplots (the King never seems to run out of money-making schemes), but all that is secondary to the interpersonal dynamics, the way the men cope with a seemingly endless captivity, and the ways their pastswho they were before they were only prisoners—color their lives in a remote tropical jungle.

All better now?

Source: Clavell, James. (2009). King Rat. New York: Bantam Dell.


  1. So...what you're saying is that The King is the Morgan Freeman in this Shawshank scenario. That's what I got from that.

    I am unsurprised but still interested in the gender roles thing that happened.

  2. Yup, that's who I pictured too.

  3. What Alice said. That.

    Also, I like the pining! "without women... men are only a cruel joke." Ah, so. For reals, this sounds really good though.

  4. I didn't even THINK of that. And now I've lost a valuable opportunity to use a Morgan Freeman GIF. Woe!

  5. There's nothing better than a man who pines well.

  6. It's never too late for a Morgan Freeman GIF, right?

  7. I totally skipped to the end to see the GIF before reading the rest of the post. Surprised mouse!

    I'm supah interested in Sean. I'd love to read a book from his (would he prefer her?) perspective. This sounds good!

  8. I like your strategy, madame.

    Sean was really, really interesting, because he wasn't gay to begin with...becoming a woman was sort of a coping strategy, but then he was all kinds of confused about his identity and he had SHAME about it. I could have done with a lot more Sean in the story.