Prisoners

Graham Hough

  • To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945 by Ronald Searle
    Collins/Imperial War Museum, 192 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 00 217436 7
  • A World Apart by Gustav Herling, translated by Joseph Marek
    Heinemann, 262 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 35710 3

Life as a prisoner of war is an indeterminate sentence, and for that reason nothing you say about it afterwards can ever be quite true. In its more mitigated forms, with Geneva conventions, Red Cross parcels, letters from home and all that, no doubt a sense of the normal order of things can be maintained. But in some forsaken gulag, outside all the rules, with all information filtered through the enemy, you enter a new dimension whose nature is hardly communicable in words. While it is going on, no one knows whether it is ever going to end, and the absent ending colours every moment of every day. Once it has ended, if you are still alive, you know it was always going to. The basic premise of POW life has disappeared, and no effort of retrospection can make it real again. Notes taken on the hoof are no good: too many words are needed to flesh out the experience, and there is never time for them. But there is an art, more rapid and more immediate, that can bring back that lost eternal present. One would hardly believe it if it had not actually been done. But it has been done, in Ronald Searle’s wartime drawings.

They fall into three groups: trainee soldiering in England, the voyage out, and the encounter with the Japanese in Singapore and Siam. All are bristling with life, but it is the third and largest group that stand out as a unique record. The earlier drawings were made in freedom and at leisure – the kind of freedom and leisure that barracks and troopships allow; and they are on subjects which in two world wars have acquired a traditional status. What distinguishes Searle’s drawings is the sense of character and individuality. Most war-artists reduce their soldiers to types – heroic, or scruffy, or suffering. And of course soldiers can be all three of these, as we are shown here. And they can also be responsible, childish, intelligent, brutish, sensitive or simply thick-headed. All these and a hundred other nuances of expression are seen on Searle’s faces. Indeed he was not a ‘war-artist’ but a participant; and the faces he portrays are not subjects or models – they are just ‘our lot’, drawn out of the sweaty intimacy that army life makes normal. The later drawings were done in captivity, made in fear and in secret, on salvaged or purloined scraps of paper, and concealed against periodic searches. The chances against their being done at all were enormous, and the chances against their survival probably greater still, and sometimes grimmer:

The climate alone was capable of rotting anything, men included, and what did not disintegrate naturally was likely to be turned over at some point by the Japanese who, even deep in the jungle, continued to search our rags and filthy belongings ... The Japanese were right, of course. We were all hiding something. In my case it was frequently due to the selfless aid of men sick or dying of cholera that this bulky record remained undetected by the Japanese. They were terrified of cholera.

They were also chary of exposure. I remember a time in Chungkai, a relatively unoppressive camp, when some of Searle’s slighter comic sketches were pinned on a noticeboard, but had to be hastily removed at the order of the commandant. The Japanese were right there too, for it was always evident that Searle’s drawings were not just notes or mnemonics. ‘They were made,’ he says, ‘with sweat, fear and, at the outset at least, wide-eyed noble intent’ – the intent to bear witness, as fully as possible, to the true nature of the whole drawn-out tribulation.

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