The plot is set in the prison camp Changi in Singapur, where more then 10,000 warriors of the Allies (Australia, UK, and the USA) are kept by the Japanese government. The year is 1945 and the Second World War is coming to its end. These prisoners of war are living under terrible conditions - they are deprived of food, medicine, and normal sanitary utilities. The struggle of survival and the pursuit to adapt reveal the complexity of their characters.
The protagonist, Peter Marlow, is an English officer, who strives to survive in the military prison camp. His friendship with The King (Clavell never mentions his real name) portrays the level to which war distorts and transforms human relationships. The King is an American soldier, who, through clever business and trade outside of the camp manages to live far better than the other inmates. He has surrounded himself with "loyal" subordinates, who in exchange of small services receive food and help from the King. The latter's most successful business idea is the farm of rats. The inmates start growing rats in order to sell their meat to the other warriors, claiming it to be chicken. At the end of the novel, the war is over and the camp is freed by the Allied forces. However, 3 years in Changi have dramatically changed these men. They are looked as alliens by the outside world; they are scared and insecure to return; they are not sure whether their loved ones are alive or waiting for them. With a great imagination Clavell gives us the destructive effect of war on the psychological and physical condition of these men. Even freed, they still feel afraid to return to the real world.
James Clavell's King Rat somewhat reminded me of Pat Barker's Regeneration. In this novel the author depicts again the traumatic effect of war by examining a mental institution for warriors. Similarly, these men have seen terrible events on the battlefield and struggle to overcome them.
The allusion to rats that Clavell makes is quite obvious. The life in the prison camp is difficult; hence only the strongest survive. As the author mentions at the end of the novel the strong rat eats the week, the clever one destroys the stupid, until only the fittest remain. Only to be substituted by better ones. In that sense the King is the strongest amongst the warriors. He successfully establishes business and trade relationships and controls the other soldiers by offering them food and shelter in exchange of services. At the end of the war, however, most of these soldier forget the help given to them by the King. He is now a simple officer, whom they threat as a subordinate, and not as a King. The reader even senses that the King misses the war and the sense of power and control it gave him in Changi. Only Peter Marlow remains loyal and honest to his friend, but the King refuses this friendship. He enters the real world weak, insecure, and unable to defend himself. Quite a change from the powerful and confident King we meet throughout the rest of the novel.
Clavell is amazing. Many claim this to be a manly novel because it largely focuses on the war. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot. The author's sense for the exotic (Singapur) combined with his great understanding of human nature and behavior results in an extensive gallery of characters, who, despite the difficulties, struggle to balance between life and death.
My next destination in Clavell's world will be definitely Shogun, claimed to be one of the most eminent masterpieces in world literature. There, the author's fascination with the exotic is evident again, as he explores the rituals and norms in Medieval Japan. Can't wait.