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King Rat (1962)

by James Clavell

Series: The Asian Saga (4)

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2,371384,406 (3.98)127
The time is World War II. The place is a brutal prison camp deep in Japanese-occupied territory. Here, within the seething mass of humanity, one man, an American corporal, seeks dominance over both captives and captors alike. His weapons are human courage, unblinking understanding of human weaknesses, and total willingness to exploit every opportunity to enlarge his power and corrupt or destroy anyone who stands in his path.… (more)
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English (35)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (38)
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
The King is an American corporal held as a POW in Singapore's Changi Prison during World War II. He is also a prototype for most of the protagonists who would follow in James Clavell's novels. The King is the ultimate outsider. A man with no home back in the United States, no true friends among the small number of other American POWs, and completely apart from the culture of the other 10,000 POWs who are British and Australian.

But the King survives. And he does so mainly through his wits. In the Darwinian world of the POW camp, the King is the one most able to adapt and rise to the top, outwitting and dominating colonels, majors, captains, and even the Japanese guards. But he also succeeds in making this depraved life in the camp work--not just for his benefit but for others. He is domineering, arrogant, and conniving.
But like a business mogul--a sort of Henry Ford of Changi--he creates a system that provides for the general good. He even manages a privatized system of charity, making sure his unit and others are fed and survive.

Along the way, he makes one genuine friend, Peter Marlowe, a captured upper class RAF pilot, a veteran of the Battle of Britain. This pair makes an unlikely partnership at first that eventually blossoms into true respect and friendship. Until the war ends. Then, the King's world is turned upside down. He is returned to what he was before the war, a nobody.

Because this story is semi-autobiographical (James Clavell was also a prisoner in Changi during World War II), it's safe to assume I think that the final image of the King, which is sympathetic and even admiring, reflects some of Clavell's own notions about what it takes to survive. Supposedly, Peter Marlowe is based in some ways upon Clavell himself. And the King saves Marlowe. If not his life outright, then at least his gangrenous arm, when the King works a business deal to bring medicine needed to save Marlowe.

At book's end, Marlowe makes clear that he has also learned from the King. No longer does he judge people by their social class but by their individual accomplishments. He has come to believe in the idea of equality of opportunity. This belief in merit will define all of Clavell's later heroes, including Blackthorne in Shogun, Dirk Struan of Tai-Pan, and Gai-Jin's Malcolm Struan. All are grizzled survivors. And all of them are traders, businessmen who adapt to the worlds that are alien to them, medieval Japan, 19th century China, and the final years of the Edo Period in Japan.

There is one impossible to ignore metaphor in King Rat. And that is the Rat Farm that the King constructs to sell rat meat to the British officers. The Rat Farm, of course, is Changi in miniature. And when the farm is abandoned once the prisoners leave Changi, we are given a final glimpse of Adam, the ultimate King Rat, who breaks out of his cage and survives. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
Not what I expected as I read through the fourth novel of James Clavell's "Asian Saga".
Whereas in previous novel you had a range of perspectives so as to provide stories from all sides of the spectrum, this time round there was only the P.O.W's, with nothing from the Japanese or Korean soldiers except a few lines here and there, which left me kind of disappointed.

Also, where was the family of the Noble House in all of this, or was Peter Mallory a member? ( )
  Eternal.Optimist | Aug 22, 2018 |
Another solid book by James Clavell. I must admit, I enjoyed the first two I read by him much more (Shogun being an all-time favorite), but this book also sucked me in and made me feel like I was a part of the prison camp. This story is obviously depressing in nature as it follows a group of Allied POW's in a Japanese prison camp, but it was hard to root for any of the characters. I suppose that was the point, and Clavell certainly succeeds in letting the reader know what the prisoner went through both physically and mentally in the camp. Clavell himself was a POW during the war, so you have to imagine how hard this was for him to write. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
An exciting read with a moving ending. Would read again ( )
  bluecastro | Mar 29, 2018 |
Fictional account of American and British POWs in a Singapore concentration camp ( )
  JackSweeney | Jan 10, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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Epigraph
There was a war. Changi and Utram Road jails in Singapore do - or did - exist. Obviously the rest of this story is fiction, and no similarity to anyone living or dead exists or is intended.
Dedication
For Those Who Were There
And Are Not,
For Those Who Were There And Are.
For Him. But Most,
For Her.
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Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies.
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