The Railway Man by Eric Lomax
Honest, painstakingly descriptive and yet somehow oddly detached, Eric Lomax’s autobiography The Railway Man provocatively gives a narrative voice to the atrocities endured by prisoners of war subjugated and enslaved to work on the deleterious Burma-Siam railway during World War II. His personal account, made that much more vivid with meticulous detail, is testament to the horrors one can endure and the hatred that can be overcome.
Following his familial roots, upbringing in Edinburgh and his childhood fascination with the rails, Lomax understatedly describes his early education, career, joining of the Royal Corps of Signals and his training and service leading up to the outbreak of war. He somewhat unemotionally details his capture as a lieutenant by the Japanese in Singapore during February of 1942 and the forced labour on the Burma railway. However, with fervour he illustrates the defiance of his captors by building a radio alongside his fellow prisoners. With great skill, he and his comrades are successful in passing along news and hope to fellow inmates across the prison and settlement. These grave acts of disobedience are met with unimaginable punishment and torture upon discovery.
Initially dragging as Lomax first establishes his background, this articulate chronicle becomes a gripping piece on the realities faced by POWs in wartime. While the first-person interpretation of inhumane suffering at the hands of the enemy can be difficult to digest, the unaffected response from the outside world upon his release is equally as shocking. The callous way in which Lomax recalls how the trauma he experiences was first ignored is heartbreaking. Little anecdotes, a simple sentence uttered by an ignorant passerby, are telling of an attitude adopted by the masses after the war.
Given the pain and distress Lomax endures, it’s difficult to understand how the tone of this memoir can be sorrowing, vengeful and finally optimistic but the humanity, compassion and understanding that he exhibits is inspiring and worthy of recognition in this sobering read.
The Railway Man is published by Vintage Books at the paperback price of £7.99, and is available now in the UK.