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 As the few comforts of their lives were withdrawn, young Ernest grew inured to the casual brutality of this new existence.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.