1,000 Days on the River Kwai, by Cary Owtram

35568518To date, most of what I know about the experience of Allied prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East comes from novels like The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Town Like Alice, movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, and what I’ve gleaned from assisting two World War II classes. The novels presented the experiences of enlisted men, while The Bridge on the River Kwai is more removed from historical reality. Colonel Cary Owtram’s memoir, 1,000 Days on the River Kwai: The Secret Diary of a British Camp Commandant, however, is a unique look at the particular challenges of a man who finds himself tasked with keeping order among the Allied prisoners and protecting them from the deprivations and cruelty of their captors.

At the time of his capture, Owtram was a lieutenant colonel. (He was later promoted to colonel and even received the Order of the British Empire, though for unrelated reasons.) Because he was often the highest ranked officer on the ground in many of the places he ended up as Japanese officers marched their prisoners to and fro across southeast Asia, Owtram was often designated camp commandant. The Japanese officers issued orders for their prisoners through him, while he did his utmost to secure supplies, negotiate punishments down to the minimum, and keep his men as healthy as humanly possible. Few men, I think, would have had the grit to manage this difficult role. He watched so many men suffer and die while he could do very little to improve camp conditions. Owtram doles out credit to dozens of officers and enlisted men for getting supplies and keeping up morale, but it’s clear that he did a lot to save lives and make life bearable for the British, Australian, American, and Dutch prisoners he was in charge of.

Owtram writes exactly like one would expect from a man who clearly belongs to the old school. Slang terms are written with single quotes. He is very humble, with the stiffest of upper lips, and glosses over the worst of what happened to him and his fellow prisoners. He is also paternalistic toward the enlisted men and casually racist about the Japanese and the Thai people alike. In the afterword written by his daughters, they remark that he had a virulent hatred for the Japanese after the war. Curiously, this intense hatred doesn’t really appear in the memoir; Owtram is more likely to toss around around terms like “little yellow men” and native to refer to Asian people.

1,000 Days on the River Kwai reads like sitting down with a grandparent and listening to what they’re willing to say about their experiences. Owtram hints at the appalling conditions he and his men lived through (with frequent references to tropical ulcers), but he is quick to move on to an amusing (sometimes actually funny but sometimes grim) anecdote or talk about the camps theatrical efforts. As such, it feels like a correction of sorts of the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. Anyone who wants to use it as primary source material should pair it with other nonfiction that takes a broader view of the Allied POW experience during the war, of course. That said, I found this to be an fascinating look at an experience I’ve never seen discussed or portrayed before.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

19322250Personhood is complicated. There is the person we present to our family, who might be the same as the person we present to our friends, who is definitely no the person we present to our bosses. Behind all those people is the person we are to ourselves. But what if, that person underneath hates themselves? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, one might think that surviving a Japanese POW camp in the Thai jungle would be conflict enough. Instead, many of the characters torment themselves with wondering if they’re good or bad people. This novel richly deserves all the accolades it has won because it provides so much food for thought about who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are.

Everyone thinks Dorrigo Evans is a hero, except Dorrigo himself. He doesn’t like who he is. He’s not affectionate with his children. He cheats on his wife. He’s not a brilliant surgeon. But everyone outside his family considers him a hero because he helped his men when they were kept in a Japanese POW camp for years. Dorrigo was the ranking officer and only qualified doctor. In harrowing circumstances, he tried to keep as many of his men alive for as long as possible. Dorrigo tortures himself by seeking happiness at the same time he feels he doesn’t deserve it.

Meanwhile, Dorrigo is contrasted with two of his guards. There is the Japanese colonel who ordered the men to work without rest, food, or medicine while ordering beatings for real and imagined faults. Yet, after the war, Nakamura tells himself over and over that he was a devoted subject of the Emperor, who only did what was necessary for his country. Then there is the Korean guard who carried out Nakamura’s sadistic orders. This guard does not lie to himself, as such. Instead, Choi Sang-min tells himself:

For when he was a guard, he lived like an animal, he behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be. (290*)

It’s hard to say who is right, if anyone is actually right. By the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I think we could say that all versions of a person are real. The problems arise when those versions are out of harmony with each other.

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Three Australian POWs who were forced to build the Burma-Thailand Railway by their Japanese captors.
(Image via Australia War Memorial)

The tension between who these men think they are and who they present to the rest of the world is brilliantly illustrated by Dorrigo and Nakamura’s love of poetry. Throughout his life, Dorrigo reads and recites poetry. The words help him express, at least to himself, his complicated emotional life. Nakamura, on the other hand, uses poetry to reassure himself that he is not a barbarian. In addition to this use of poetry, the haiku at the beginning of each section serve as knotty kōan to think about while we chew over the book and its subtext. They don’t immediately make sense but, once I passed each section, the haiku meaning unfolded so that I could feel a bit of the love of poetry Dorrigo and Nakamura have. And, if I’m honest with myself in a way neither of these characters are, understanding the haiku makes me feel very smart.

I finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday and I’m still thinking about it. Like all great books, it has so much to say that I’m not done with it even though I’ve finished the last page. This book covers the nature of heroism, the will to survive, the banality of life after great hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, the varieties of love, and so much more. This book pummeled me in the best way. This review barely scratches the surface of the book. I want to recommend it to a ton of readers so that I have someone to share my pummeling with.


* Quote is from the 2013 trade paperback by Vintage International.