Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Review: The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax

The past few months have welcomed many firsts for me in terms of reading. Previously, I hadn't read many non-fiction books. Nor had I read many memoirs. The same went for books of essays. However, I've slowly started experimenting with and reading a wider variety of genres, including the ones just mentioned. With my 'have read' collection being in the midst of a serious genre expansion, and considering I received Eric Lomax's The Railway Man for Christmas, I thought what better time than to continue expanding my reading horizons, this time with a wartime memoir.

While I was excited to commence reading this new book and genre, I was also a little bit nervous. Would the narrative draw me in enough? Would all of the military and train jargon go over my head? Would the accounts of torture be too gruesome for me to get through? Would the fact that I dislike war and what it stands for hinder my ability to enjoy the story? I knew these concerns were petty, yet I couldn't help thinking them. However I needn't have worried, for Lomax's story was crafted so eloquently and told in such an accessible way that I was glued to it from beginning to end. 

The Railway Man is the remarkable story of Lomax's life, focusing largely on his time as a Prisoner of War (POW) along the notorious Burma-Siam line during the Second World War. Also known as the 'Railway of Death,' around 12,399 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian civilian labourers died in its construction. Lomax himself only just survived the harrowing ordeal, spending over three years captured and tortured by the Japanese in various POW camps along the railway. For those of you unfamiliar with the chilling history of this line - a line that was never even completed - I'll borrow Lomax's words to describe it to you, who states that 'it was not only the last cruel enterprise of the railway age, but the worst civil engineering disaster in history.'  (p.98)

While a large portion of The Railway Man deals with the atrocities of working along this Death Railway as a POW, reading about what Lomax went through - which was unimaginably horrific - was never to much for me to bear. Instead I was completely gripped by his story. That's very much due to Lomax's highly skilful writing and his ability to communicate what he went through in the poetically simple and palpable way that he does. One example is when Lomax describes his state of delirium after days and days of intensely repetitive and aggressive interrogation, where he states:
'My mind was turning into a machine that produced texts, words and images, cutting them up and feeding them to me in disconnected and confused snatches, slogans, scenes, fantasies. I became a screen with bits and pieces unfolding across me.' (p.159)
This vivid snapshot of Lomax's chaotic and manic state is a prime example of his ability to recreate moments in words so well. It captures the inhumanity he and his fellow prisoners suffered, who were made to feel anything but human, being reduced to mechanical shells of the people they previously were.

Despite all of the horrors recounted in his story, Lomax still manages to offset the harsh brutality of his life as a POW by discussing his lifelong passion of trains throughout his narrative. What's more surprising is that this passion, which stemmed from Lomax's childood, was not weakened while being made to work on the worst railway in history. If anything it reinforced his fascination with these machines, for somehow Lomax was still able to find pleasure in them. Though the cruel irony of all of this is not lost on Lomax, his inherent obsession with trains is nonetheless perplexing for the reader, given what he and his fellow servicemen were being put through. Putting perplexities aside, Lomax's passion nevertheless remains a heartwarming example of the mysterious workings of the human spirit in times of severe hardship, suggesting that hope is possible even in the most desperate of times.

Being freed by the Allies in 1945, Lomax's story continues with a heart-rendering insider's perspective into what it's like to survive a war, and the sheer numbness and isolation that can result out of not knowing how to cope. With little support services available for ex-servicemen at this time, it's little wonder that Lomax was left to feel like a shell of the man he once was. 

Patti and Eric Lomax
After years of being tormented by his past demons, Lomax finally meets the person who will help him start to heal. And that person is Patti, who - through some extraordinary act of fate - he meets on a train. Together with Patti, Lomax is able to start facing the demons that still haunt him. This culminates with Lomax meeting one of his previous tormentors in the areas where he was once a prisoner; an event that prior to meeting Patti was simply unimaginable.

Within this wartime tale is also a story of lost innocence and nostalgia for times gone by. After all, the Second World War was the first time in history that technology and machinery was used like it never had been previously, where weapons of mass destruction caused unprecedented devastation. It moved the rest of the world and everyone in it into a new, uncertain era. Lomax's story is thus a transition from one of the last eras of true innocence - when 'technology was still powerful and beautiful without being menacing' (p.34) - to our modern era which is very much ruled by advancing technology; sadly more often than not to the detriment of our world.

Thus, Lomax's story also acts as a foreboding warning against the delusionary confidence that comes with living in the present and having little regard for future consequences. That for me was one of the strongest messages I took from the book - that humans have brought upon themselves much of the devastation and havoc caused to them, yet surprisingly do not learn from these mistakes, preferring much of the time to ignore or forget.

This is why stories like Lomax's are so important to read, as they are part of the process of remembering and understanding so that past mistakes don't need to be repeated. Unfortunately, even this isn't always enough, for as Lomax states from his own experiences, 'remembering is not enough, if it simply hardens hate' (p.319). Fortunately for Lomax, he was able to transcend the hatred and demons that had built up inside of him, finally finding peace with his past. And from this came the strength for Lomax to be able to share his story with us, a story that is so touching, powerful and important to read.

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