In this Man Booker prize-winning novel by Richard Flanagan, set in WWII, Australian prisoner-of-war, Dorrigo Evans, is taken with his men out into the Thai jungle, where they are to build the infamous “death railway” for the Japanese army.
They played a game of footy against the Changi camp’s top side and lost by eight goals, but not before hearing Sheephead Morton’s three-quarter-time address that began with words that would become for them immortal—
I’ve only got one thing to tell you blokes, and the first of them is . . .
Two weeks later the Java Scum left in the same rags in which they had arrived, the uncrated Wat Cooney among their number. Now officially designated as Evans’ J Force, they were taken to the railway station and crammed into the small, closed steel-box wagons used for carrying rice; twenty-seven men in each, not enough space to even sit. They travelled in tropical heat through tunnels of rubber trees and jungle, glimpsed through a profusion of sweating diggers and a partly open sliding door, that tangled green endless over them, and falling away from them the Malays in sarongs, Indians, the Chinese coolie women, all in their gay cloth headgear out there working the rice paddies, and them in the close dark of those cruel ovens. They were men like other young men, unknown to themselves. So much that lay within them they were now travelling to meet.
Beneath them, the railway line beat on and on, as in the sweat-wet slither they swayed in each other’s arms and legs. Near the end of the third day they began to see paddy fields and clumps of sugar palm flashing by, and the Thai women, dark and buxom, raven-black hair and lovely smiles. They had to take turns sitting and they slept each with his legs draped over the next man, enveloped in a fuming stench of stale vomit, of rancid bodies, shit and puke, and on they went, soot-slicked and heartsick, a thousand miles, five days and no food, six stops and three dead men.
On the fifth afternoon they were taken off the train at Ban Pong, forty miles from Bangkok. They were put in high-framed trucks, thirty men jammed in each like cattle and hanging on to each other like monkeys, travelling through jungle on a road six inches deep in fine dust. A vivid blue butterfly fluttered above them. A Western Australian POW crushed it when it landed on his shoulder.
Nightfall came, and still the road went on, and late that evening they reached Tarsau, covered in filth and encrusted in road dust. They slept in the dirt and were back in the trucks at dawn for an hour heading up little more than a bullock track into the mountains. At the track’s end, they got off the trucks and marched until late afternoon, when they finally stopped at a small clearing by a river.
Into the blessed river they jumped to swim. Five days in steel boxes, two days in trucks—how beautiful is water? Beatitudes of the flesh, blessings of the world beyond the veil—clean skin, weightlessness, the rushing universe of fluid calm. They slept like logs in their swags, until the whoop of monkeys awoke them at dawn.
The guards marched them through the jungle three and a half miles. A Japanese officer climbed a tree stump to address them.
Thank you, he said, for long way here to help Emperor with railway. Being prisoner great shame. Great! Redeem honour building railway for Emperor. Great honour. Great!
He pointed to the line of surveyors’ pegs that marked the course the railway was to take. The pegs quickly vanished in jungle.
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