This is the story of Eric Lomax, an innocent Scottish boy from a sheltered background who finds himself a prisoner of the Japanese in Thailand and Singapore. In the first section of this book we are introduced to the young man, an only child born in 1919. He has a passion for railways,but he follows his father into the Edinburgh post Office, where he is soon bored so goes on to train as a radio telegrapher. He has an interest in all things mechanical and has already built his first radio.
War begins and, Eric joins up as a reservist in the Royal Corps of Signals.,Within months he is disembarking in Singapore. As a radiographer, he spends several weeks cocooned in command headquarters but after the fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942, he is soon joining hundreds of others on the 1000 mile journey up the Malay Peninsular to Thailand where, according to rumours, a big railway project is underway. Because of his expertise, Eric is sent to a camp where he assists Japanese mechanics and engineers. This is a relatively easy job compared to the backbreaking work of the men building the line. The engineers they work for are intelligent men, and allow the POWs a certain amount of freedom.
Lomax compiles a map of the region, which he hides in a tube of bamboo. The men soon hunger for news and several of them get together to built a small radio which they hide in a biscuit tin. Inevitably the radio is discovered, and the nightmare begins. The men are placed in cages and, one by one, taken away and left standing in the sun for hours, even days before being subjected to brutal beatings which leave them with broken ribs, smashed faces, and in Lomax’s case, broken arms. Like the others, Lomax is interrogated by the Japanese – a brutal man and a small interpreter with an unpleasant whining voice. They clearly suspect him of spying. Later his map, too is discovered, and for this he has water forced from a hose down his throat and nose until he almost drowns. The water fills his stomach, blowing it up like a balloon until it is stamped out of his body.
Once he has recovered (but with arms still in splints) Lomax is returned to Singapore and imprisoned in the Outram Road Gaol where the men sleep in tiny cells, unable to wash and almost completely starved until, little more than sore-infested skeletons, they are sent to the prison hospital at Changi. Once restored to health at Changi they are returned to the torment of Outram Road. Whilst there, prisoners are forbidden to speak to each other and the silence is deadening, causing the mind to spiral out of control into madness.
With the end of the war, Lomax is sent to India to recuperate. On his return to Edinburgh he finds that his mother died three years earlier and his father has remarried. He himself quickly marries, although he has changed beyond all recognition from the innocent boy he once was.
As with so many torture victims, he is unable to communicate his pain to her or to anyone. He has become a cold, untrusting man, prone to violent rages and terrible nightmares. Unsurprisingly, the marriage doesn't survive. Lomax takes a variety of jobs including work on the Volta dam in Africa, and then as a lecturer in personnel management. During these years he is haunted by memories and by a hatred for the Japanese, particularly the flat-voiced interpreter who translated so mechanically during his torture ordeal.
He meets Patti, an English girl who had lived for many years in Canada. She is a warm hearted intelligent woman, and the two soon marry. Luckily she wants to know about his experiences. As a result of her insistence he is referred for psychiatric help and for the first time is able to speak about the torture he experience and about his hatred for the Japanese.
At this point, fate steps in, in the form of a newspaper article about a Japanese translator who has spent the past forty years trying to atone for the cruelty inflicted on POWs by the Japanese. In particular, the artcle mentions this man’s inability to forget a victim tortured for having drawn and hidden a map. Patti manages to obtain a book written by this translator, whose name is Nagase. She writes to him and he writes back, filled with the utmost remorse.
From wanting only to kill this man, and refusing to even speak to a Japanese, Lomax begins to contemplate actually meeting his tormentor. The trip is arranged and he and Patti travel out to Thailand.
The book draws to an end very movingly as the two old men meet on the River Kwai, where Nagase begs forgiveness of Lomax. Soon after, Lomax and Patti go to Japan, where Nagase and his wife treat them with the utmost courtesy as does everyone else they meet. Before they leave, Lomax sits quietly with the old man and from his heart forgives him, once his torturer, now his friend. At this moment a lifetime’s burden is lifted not only from Nagase but from Lomax too.
This book is beautifully written and very touching. It speaks a lot about the nature of war and brutality but also about the importance of forgiveness.