Updated on May 19, 2015
32. ‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax
I committed one of the cardinal sins of readers with this book: I watched the movie first.
Still, I can defend myself. I actually wasn’t aware that this was a book. I’d seen trailers for the movie and just thought it was a ‘based on a true story’ film. As soon as the credits rolled I went online to find out more and ordered the book as soon as I found it existed.
This is the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a young man absolutely fascinated by trains, who joins the army as a signalman and is sent to Asia in the 1940s. There he is captured by Japanese military and subjected to years of abuse, starvation and torture as a prisoner of war.
Of course, the movie is a much more romanticised version of the real story. The writers/director have chopped a lot of what actually happened to Lomax (moving to different camps and meeting lots of other POWs), to condense it into a more movie-friendly story. But the essence remains: the endless resourcefulness of someone struggling to survive in the face of extreme cruelty.
Lomax’ problems really start when he is caught with a map. The POWs are working on the Burma Railway – now infamous for the death and cruelty that came about because of its construction – and the Japanese soldiers simply can’t believe that Lomax might have made a map because he is a train enthusiast. Because of this, he is subjected to one of the most brutal torture techniques: waterboarding.
The story really balances on what happens after the war, when Lomax is much older and marries Patti, who forces him to face up to his awful memories and overcome them. Because of her determination, Lomax gets to meets one of his former abusers and what happens is deeply moving.
There have been some complaints about this book. Some critics claim that he doesn’t write enough about his children in this, his autobiography, but I would argue that this is more about his war story than a description of the entirety of his life.
In fact, I would be absolutely fascinated to read a biography of his children, describing what Lomax was like as a father (I have read, emotionally distant, since he was suffering the after-effects of torture). For Lomax’ children to have a platform of their own to tell their story – to share how torture affects people across generations – would, I think, be both interesting and important.
This is a touching book with a strong and inspiring message of forgiveness. Definitely a true-life story you won’t be able to put down (except, perhaps, when he goes off on one about trains).
“The privacy of a torture victim is more impregnable than any island fortress.”
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?