When I was in high school, I picked up a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun and immediately went on a fiction binge where I plowed through Shogun, Tai-Pan and King Rat in the span of a few weeks. Of the three, King Rat is Clavell’s first published work, probably the least known and perhaps the best. Reminiscent of Bridge on the River Kwai, King Rat tells the semi-autobiographical story of British and American prisoners locked up during WWII in the notorious Japanese controlled POW camp, Changi located in Singapore.
The prisoners represent nearly every section of British and American social class, all trying to survive the brutal conditions of the camp for the duration of the war. Stripped of money and class, they find themselves struggling on an equal playing field where the ‘haves and have nots’ are determined by something other than social standing. The story revolves around the undisputed leader of the camp, an American soldier simply referred to as ‘King.’ King, heavily involved in the black market, has learned not only to how to survive in the camp, but how to flourish. He originally seeks out a young British soldier, Peter Marlowe for his fluency in Asian languages. As the novel progresses, he takes the young man under his wing and the two develop a friendship as well as a thriving business.
Like most stories depicting the horrors of war, King Rat is not for the squeamish. It is however an excellent look into a side of the war not usually explored.