The Railway Man by Eric Lomax - book review

Memoir of wartime  torment with an  uplifting ending

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The Independent Culture

Just as Colin Firth finished travelling around the world, to the huge film sets constructed to tell the humble but never-to-be-forgotten story of the life of Eric Lomax, his subject’s health finally deteriorated, and he died at home in Berwick-upon-Tweed at the age of 93.

As screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce points out in a new introduction to the now near twenty year old memoir The Railway Man, published to coincide with the release of the film version next year, in one sense that is for the best. It took more than 50 years for Mr Lomax, a Scottish engineer and obsessive railway enthusiast, to forgive the Japanese guards who tortured him in the ‘monkey houses’ at Kanchanaburi, during the construction of the ‘Death Railway’ from Thailand to Burma in 1943.

That he never got to see the film, “was probably a mercy,” writes Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote the screenplay to the Olympics Opening Ceremony. “Eric Lomax’s greatest achievement was to find an ending to his story, and left it behind. Why would he want to revisit all those nightmares in Dolby Stereo and Technicolor?”

Of all the billions of words that have been written about the Second World War, with the exception of Churchill’s Nobel Prize winning history, it is not an exaggeration to say there is no account of it more worth reading than this. Wistfully romantic, historically important, startling, horrifying and ultimately electrifyingly uplifting, The Railway Man is as indispensable as any book can be.

In its early pages it is impossible not to yearn for the bleak romance of Lomax’s stern Scottish youth, where he fell in love, first with steam engines and then with a young woman, left behind when he set out with the Royal Signals on a steamship for Singapore in 1940. Never such innocence again.

Ultimately, Lomax’s ‘railway mania’, as his Japanese interrogator disbelievingly refers to it, is tragically bound up with the horrors he endures. The Kempetai - as the Japanese secret police were then known - simply cannot accept that his covertly assembled and detailed map of the new railway, was maintained simply to satisfy his obsession (they were partly right).

The worst of the torture described in fact doesn’t feature in the film, which makes more of Lomax’s relationship with his second wife, Patti, who he met - on a train - in 1977, and who helped him, a little forcibly at times, towards the remarkable closure at the book’s end.

It was through Patti that Eric came to first publish the book, in 1995, though The Railway Man is not the memories of an old man. The wartime parts are the notes and diaries of a young soldier, who kept them in a drawer for 50 years, almost unable to talk about them.

In the 19 years gap between the book’s publication, and its cinema release, much of the world has become familiar with the word waterboarding, one of the many cruelties we read of first hand here, in Lomax’s controlled, understated prose. Elsewhere he and four of his fellow soldiers are forced to watch as each are beaten in turn with pick axe handles for forty five minutes. Two of the five die in a ditch from their injuries. Lomax never fully recovers from his injuries.

The Railway Man is already remembered principally as a memoir on the powers of forgiveness. Of how, in the end, Lomax tracks down his Japanese interrogator, who in the intervening decades has become a devout Buddhist and has dedicated his life to atoning for the treatment of Japanese Prisoners of War. And Lomax makes peace with him, at the famous bridge over the River Kwai.

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that the two men only came together because, almost 50 years on, on reading that Takashi Nagase felt he had been ‘forgiven’, Lomax became so enraged that he was determined to tell him that no, he hadn’t been. That he still hated him. That, even as an old man, he dreamt of strangling him.

The forgiving, the friendship, the sudden draining of hate and the overwhelming liberation that overcame him did so almost against his wishes.

It is probably part of the human condition that somewhere on earth, at any time, there is a place as dark as Kanchanaburi, 1943. The world today is no stranger to torture. That the potential for unimaginable cruelty lurks in all of us, is certainly borne out by the evidence.

The Railway Man shows us something rarer; that a bottomless capacity for forgiveness - equally unimaginable - lurks in us too, and it cannot be extinguished, even if we want it to be.

Video: Clip from 'The Railway Man'