King Rat


A few weeks back, after reading a lot of speculative fiction titles, I realized that I needed a change of pace. Having reviewed both Shogun and Tai-Pan in the past, James Clavell's King Rat has been on my radar for the last couple of years and I felt that the time had come to give it a shot. Given the fact that the novel is based on the author's own three-year experience as a prisoner in the Changi Prison camp, I always knew that it would be the next installment of Clavell's Asian Saga that I would read.

Although King Rat was James Clavell's literary debut, I was hoping that the book would recapture the magic that made Shogun such an unforgettable read. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Like Tai-Pan, it is an interesting and occasionally compelling read. However, I'm beginning to feel that no other work in this saga will ever approach Shogun as far as scope and quality are concerned.

Here's the blurb:

The time is World War II. The place is a brutal prison camp deep in Japanese-occupied territory. Here, within the seething mass of humanity, one man, an American corporal, seeks dominance over both captives and captors alike. His weapons are human courage, unblinking understanding of human weaknesses, and total willingness to exploit every opportunity to enlarge his power and corrupt or destroy anyone who stands in his path.

I found the premise of the novel completely fascinating. As a former P.O.W., Clavell's vivid portrayal of the struggle for survival of Allied forces' prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore was as dramatic as it was memorable. His depiction of the brutal and degrading living conditions and the daily challenges that bring men to the edge of losing their humanity and going insane was unbelievable. The plot itself is not what makes this novel. No, it's the author's exploration of such concepts as the hierarchy (military and otherwise), the economic realities of a closed society, the politics of war, and the abject misery of life inside a World War II Japanese P.O.W. camp that made King Rat such an engrossing read at times.

As captivating as that disturbing portrayal turned out to be, the storylines and the characterization failed to truly capture the imagination. King Rat features two main protagonists. The King is a smart and pragmatic American, a self-made man with a clever business sense. On the other hand, Peter Marlowe, with his British upper class upbringing, is often uptight and reticent to do anything that goes against his values and military traditions. As a major power within the camp, the King arouses a lot of mixed feelings among his fellow prisoners, officers, and even the readers. But as Marlowe gets to know him, the disgust and antipathy will gradually give way to sympathy and admiration. There are plenty of other characters, but other than Robin Grey, a British Provost Marshal who dreams of catching the King red-handed so he can arrest him for violating camp regulations, the rest of the cast are nothing special. The few female characters, especially, are so dumb and insipid that they make you want to throw the book across the room.

The pace is decidedly uneven throughout. As I mentioned, the vivid portrayal of the prisoners' hardships and despair makes for an exceptional narrative. However, the plot, or lack thereof, moves at a very low speed. For the better part of King Rat, one wonders what the book is supposed to be about. As a case study for life in a P.O.W. camp, it is remarkable. But as far as the plot is concerned, it appears that everyone involved is simply waiting until the end of the WWII, hoping to survive long enough to be rescued. As such, the storylines often seem to be drifting aimlessly and that's about it.

When it comes, the ending is more than a little anticlimactic. It is fitting, though, with the final scene giving the novel its title. Still, in the end, for all that the premise was brilliant and the uncompromising depiction of camp misery leaped off the pages, as a whole King Rat failed to live up to the lofty expectations I had for the book.

The final verdict: 7.25/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

3 commentaires:

Doug Landis said...

Pat,
Shogun was an amazing adventure. Are any of his other books worth the read? Gai Jin?
Thanks!
Doug

Patrick said...

I've only read SHOGUN, TAI-PAN, and KING RAT, so I can't say anything about the others. I own the entire series, but I've only read those three thus far.

James said...

I like all of Clavell's books, but Shogun is the only one I love. Tai-Pan is firmly the second best. I don't think you will find a sho-gun equivalent in the series...sorry.