King Rat

February 1st, 2008

When I was 15 I spent a few weeks at a camp in the summer. We were sailing. Up in the top right corner of Poland there's a region called Masuria, a region of lakes. It's pretty much the only place in the country you really wanna go sailing. It's vast and quite uncontaminated by urbanity and worse: industry. You'll find small picturesque towns scattered between the lakes and the way of life is to stay on the lake most of the day and set up shop at night in tents.

So where was I going with this? Oh yes, sailing is fun, but it's hard to fill 14 consecutive days to the brim with it. There was a lot of down time, and plenty of boredom as well. I didn't know any of the people and I felt quite alone. I was also the youngest. There formed cliques, but I wasn't in any of them. I shared a tent with a guy who was 18 and we didn't fraternize. And anyway he was busy with his girlfriend.

Toward the end of the camp it got a little better for me. I had nothing to do, but I noticed my tent partner started reading a book he'd brought with him. I wasn't big on reading back then, but when you're that bored, a book will do nicely. One time he was out I got curious. It was a nicely bounded volume and I started looking through it, reading a few words out of the middle. The characters appealed to me, I kept on reading. Before long I was caught up in the book.

I guess my tent partner was a little put off, but well he knew I had nothing to do and most of the time I was indeed not doing anything, so he just let me. Anyway, it was his book, he could read it anytime, and his girlfriend was more interesting to him. Somehow word got around that there's a good book in the camp and several people got interested. The camp was coming to a close and I started to worry that, especially with this new interest, I wouldn't finish it. But despite the hype I kept on reading it pretty much all the time, and most people aren't the type to rip an item you're holding out of your hands, so I was in control. On the trip back from camp I finished the book with about 2 hours to spare.

Unfortunately, I forgot the title and years later I remembered the incident and tried to figure out what it was. That turned out to be harder than I expected. All I could remember was that it was a story about prisoners of war held by the Japanese during World War 2. And I vaguely remembered the title, but not accurately. I also didn't know what it would be called in English.

At one point I thought it might be Lord of the flies, the title sounded close enough. But that turned out to be a children's book, and a bad one at that. Eventually I tracked down the story, called King Rat, which is a literal translation of the title in Polish.

I read it a decade ago, and when I read it today the story is still captivating. It's a tale of Allied troops being held in a POW camp in Singapore during the war, under strict Japanese rule. Their living conditions are difficult to imagine, and prisoners have regular afflictions of fever and disease, those that are surviving. Food is scarce, drugs are lacking. They know nothing of the outside world, nothing about how the war is going, no news of home.

These are the circumstances in which survival is a privilege. From a sociological point of view it's almost like.. a controlled experiment. Prisoners realize they cannot survive alone, so they form groups of 2 of 3, accomplices they can trust, and take care of each other. They share food, help the sick, and look out for trouble. Everyone is putting some food aside just in case it might get even worse.

And this is the world of the King. A lowly American corporal is the one man who knows how to survive, nay how to live, in these surroundings. The only one not malnourished, the only one not diseased, the only one not clad in rags. He is.. a business man. Those prisoners who have somehow managed to hide their last possessions are keen to sell them when they have no other choice. Watches, jewelry, things that can buy a wealth of food to last weeks. The King is the only man who can arrange such a trade. He trades with the outside, clandestinely. The Japanese overlords strictly forbid it.

And this is the gripping story of a not-so-distant past.

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2 Responses to "King Rat"

  1. erik says:

    I think I saw the movie. Or at least the movie of a similar story. Must've been a long time ago though because memory isn't serving me well on this one

  2. numerodix says:

    It was some movie, not a play or a musical, we've narrowed it down that much. :D