BOOK REVIEW / Darkest days in Java: 'The Way of a Boy' - Ernest Hillen: Viking, 15 pounds

TO SURVIVE the atrocities of war is a privilege granted, arbitrarily, to some; to bear witness to their sufferings is then, it has often been said, their duty. What that act entails remains open to debate: in rendering an account, can events be altered or fabricated or simply ignored in the name of a larger, artistic effect? A distorted testimonial might gain in other respects, but in losing its truth it loses much of its power.

Ernest Hillen, in his memoir The Way of a Boy, has not opted for literary pyrotechnics or trumped-up narrative adventure. Rather, he has recreated with absolute clarity and simplicity the landscapes and individuals that defined his wartime experience. The younger son of a Dutch father and a Canadian mother, Hillen was seven when the war (in the form of Japanese troops) reached the tea plantation in the mountains of Java where his family had made their home.

Unlike the glamorous sophistication of expatriate Shanghai from which the young Jim Ballard was torn in Empire of the Sun (also a book about a small European boy suffering at the hands of the Japanese), the charmingly evoked Bandung, where the Hillens lived, was a simple colonial settlement. There, Ernest and his elder brother Jerry enjoyed commonplace pleasures: swimming in the compound pool, playing Cowboys and Indians, smoking in the bushes. As a special project, the young Ernest collected bits of scrap iron, in the secret hope of building a huge steamship.

Hillen's account is at once horrifying and inspiring as it details the gradual unravelling of this 'normal' life, a descent from the everyday to utter misery that is far less dramatic than the young Ballard's loss of his parents on the battle-ridden streets of Shanghai. Initially, Hillen's father, along with the other European men, was rounded up and taken away. Hillen conveys perfectly his childish obliviousness to the significance of that departure, as he does his innocence about the subsequent evacuation of women and children: allowed only one suitcase, he recalls, he wanted above all to take his iron collection with him (wisely, his mother put her foot down).

What follows is a slow progress from prison camp to prison camp, each more degrading than the last, periodic migrations in a routine otherwise permeated, for Hillen - a small boy without work duties - with sheer boredom. As the few comforts of their lives were withdrawn, young Ernest grew inured to the casual brutality of this new existence. And as the people around him, including his older brother Jerry, were plucked from his sphere, he lapsed into cynical reticence. In Kampung Makasar, the final and bleakest of the camps, where families were huddled on bug-infested bunks in stinking barracks, he turned his back on the goodness and patience which his mother advocated and by which she lived. Instead he became a thieving opportunist, his thoughts only and ever on the next dry crust or spoonful of sugar. ('On the side of a barrack was scrawled, in charcoal, DON'T SPEAK ABOUT FOOD]' he notes, 'But everyone did'.)

Amid the relentlessness of the ever-worsening camp life, Hillen recalls the idiosyncracies and kindnesses that kept people going: the unknown Indonesian women who volunteered their food on the Europeans' first night in captivity; the indefatigable Corry Vonk, who organised theatre and cabaret in the camps; and Ernest's own imaginary heroine, a Chinese girl in red boots whose adventures he invented for his mother's benefit, and for his own. There are blacker memories, too, of perversity and violence and, inevitably, of death.

Ultimately, The Way of a Boy is as much about the gamut of human choice even in extremity as it is about the specific, and powerful, detail of Ernest Hillen's reminiscence. The account is a testament to the effects of imprisonment and deprivation on a young soul. And it also offers, in its epilogue (in which Hillen returns, in middle age, from his home in Canada to the Java of his youth) a glimpse of the island's resilience, of the healing both of its people and of the author himself. Even when it is so tragically stunted, Hillen implies, the way of a boy need not be the way of the man. But a recognition of, and a testimony to, the boy's way are essential to its passing.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before