A narration from an Australian surgeon while serving in a Japanese POW camp during the construction of the Burma Death Railway.
Two stories run parallel in the book, hunger, disease, filth of the camp of prisoners of the Second World War and a deeply moving sensuous love story. It’s quite a challenge, for the reader, to read the two together, to switch from the description of an emaciated soldier, the smells of death and disease, to the description of the red camellia in her hair.
The story tells that unalterable damage of an overwhelming war, a conflict beyond people and civilisation, beyond the forests, the hills, the songs and the sunset, something that removes compassion away for a lifetime…those horrendous stories of torture….
I had to skip the intricate details of violence, just could not read, without the images forming in my head or right in front of my eyes, on the pages of the book.
Few excerpts, that in a way, sums up the book…and a photograph of the Death Railway from the internet:
…for an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and the only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshiped, for it was only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under boots and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.
Do you believe in love, Mr. Evans? Because I think you make it. You don’t get it given to you. You make it.
Had he chosen? Had she? Was there ever a choice? Or did life just sweep people up, together and away?
…what did was an irrevocable idea of human goodness, as undeniable as it was beautiful….thereafter he took great pleasure in wind, in the sound of rain. He marvelled at the feeling of dawn on a hot day. He exalted in the smiles of strangers. He worked at habits and friendships, seeing in them the only alternative to what he felt the alternative was. He cultivated a flock of vivid green, blue and red rosella parrots that came to his yard for the food and water he laid out for them. Then came the wrens and the bullying honeyeaters, the gossiping firetails and the occasional scarlet robin, the bright blue wrens with their dun-coloured harems, the shimmering cranky fantail, the cuckoo shrikes and silvereyes and chirruping pardalotes. He would sometimes sit on a bench seat on his verandah for hours watching the birds feed, bathe, rest, preen and play. And in the mystery of their flight and beauty, in their inexplicable arrivals and departures, he felt he saw his life.