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This is war as experienced in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java in 1942, but, above all, war as experienced in the hearts and souls of men.
This is the story of two British officers whose spirit the Japanese try to break. Yet out of the terrible violence and hardship strange bonds of love and friendship are forged between the prisoners – and their gaolers.
This is a battle for survival that becomes a battle of contrasting wills and cultures as the intensities of the men’s relationships develop.
About the Author
Laurens van der Post was born in South Africa in 1906, the thirteenth of fifteen children in a family of Dutch and French Huguenot origins. Most of his adult life was spent with one foot in Africa and one in England. His professions of writer and farmer were interrupted by ten years of soldiering in the British Army, serving with distinction in the Western Desert, Abyssinia, Burma and the Far East. Taken prisoner by the Japanese, he was held in captivity for three years before returning to active service as a member of Lord Mountbatten’s staff in Indonesia and, later, as Military Attaché to the British Minister in Java.
After 1949 he undertook several official missions exploring little-known parts of Africa, and his journey in search of the Bushmen in 1957 formed the basis of his famous documentary film and The Lost World of the Kalahari. Other television films include All Africa Within Us and The Story of Carl Gustav Jung, whom he met after the war and grew to know as a personal friend. In 1934 he wrote In a Province, the first book by a South African to expose the horrors of racism. Other books include Venture to the Interior (1952), The Heart of the Hunter (1961), and A Walk with a White Bushman (1986). The Seed and the Sower was made into a film under the title Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and, more recently, A Story Like the Wind and A Far-Off Place were combined and made into the film A Far-Off Place.
Sir Laurens van der Post was awarded the CBE in 1947 and received his knighthood in 1981. He died in 1996.
Also by Laurens van der Post
In a Province
Venture to the Interior
The Face Beside the Fire
The Dark Eye in Africa
The Lost World of the Kalahari
The Heart of the Hunter
Journey into Russia
The Hunter and the Whale
The Night of the New Moon
A Story Like the Wind
A Far-Off Place
A Mantis Carol
Jung and the Story of our Time
First Catch Your Eland
Yet Being Someone Other
A Walk With a White Bushman
About Blady: A Pattern Out of Time
The Voice of the Thunder
The Seed and the Sower
Laurens van der Post
Et venio in campos et lata
And I come to the fields and wide palaces of memory.
The book as a whole to my wife
for editing this Christmas trilogy with such concern for its meaning;
A Bar of Shadow, as it was when first published, to
Grateful thanks are due to the Editor and Publishers ofThe Cornhill, in which A Bar of Shadow first appeared. for permission to reprint it.
A Bar of Shadow
A Bar of Shadow
AS WE WALKED across the fields we hardly spoke. I, myself, no longer had the heart to try and make conversation. I had looked forward so eagerly to this Christmas visit of John Lawrence and yet now that he was here, we seemed incapable of talking to each other in a real way. I had not seen him for five years; not since we said good-bye at our prison gates on release at the end of the war, I to return to my civilian life, he to go straight back to the Army on active service. Until then for years he and I had walked as it were hand in hand with the danger of war and endured the same bitter things at the hands of the Japanese in prison. Indeed, when our release came we found that our experience, shared in the embattled world about us, fitted like a measured garment to the great and instinctive coincidence of affection we felt for each other. That moment of rounded nearness had stayed with me. There was no separation in it for me, no distance of purple leagues between him and me. I knew only too well the cruel and unnecessary alliance (unnecessary because either one of them is powerful enough) that time and distance contract for waging their war against our brief and brittle human nearnesses. But if I had managed to stay close, why should he have been set so far apart? For that is precisely what I felt. Although he was so near to me that I had but to half-stretch out a hand to take his arm, never in five years of separation had he seemed so far away as now.
I stole a quick glimpse of him. The suit of pre-war tweeds, which still fitted him perfectly, sat on his tall broad frame more like service uniform than becoming country garments and he was walking like a somnambulist at my side, with an odd unconscious deliberation and purposefulness, a strange, tranced expression on his face. His large grey eyes, set well apart under that fine and wide brow in a noble head, were blue with the distance between us. Even the light of that contracting December afternoon, receding from the day like the grey tide of a stilled sea from a forgotten and forlorn foreshore fuming silently in the gathering mists of time, glowed in his eyes not like a light from without so much as the fading tones of a frozen wintry moment far back in some calendar of his own within. Their focus clearly was not of that moment and that place and the irony of it was almost more than I could bear without protest.
I don’t know what I would have done if something unknown within me, infinitely wiser and more knowledgeable than my conscious self marching at his side in bitter judgement over this resumption that was not a resumption of our relationship, had not suddenly swept into command and ordered me to ask: ‘You have not by any chance run into “Rottang” Hara again?’
The question was out before I even knew I was going to ask it and instantly I felt a fool at having put it, so irrelevant and remote from that moment did it seem. But to my amazement, he stopped short in his tracks, turned to me and, like someone released from an emotion too tight for him, said with obvious relief:
‘It is curious you asking me that! For I was thinking of him just then.’ He paused slightly and then added with an apologetic laugh, as if he feared being misunderstood: ‘I have been thinking of him all day. I can’t get him out of my mind.’
My relief matched his, for instantly I recognized a contact that could bridge his isolation. Here was a preoccupation I could understand and follow a long way even if I could not share it to the end. Just the thought of Hara and the mention of his name was enough to bring the living image of the man as clearly to my senses as if I had only just left him and as if at any moment now behind me that strange, strangled, nerve-taut, solar-plexus voice of his which exploded in him when he was enraged, would shriek ‘Kura!’ – the rudest of the many rude ways in Japanese of saying: ‘Come here, you!’
At the thought the hair on the back of my neck suddenlybecame sensitive to the cold air and involuntarily I looked over my shoulder as if I really expected to see him standing at the gate by the Long Barn beckoning us with an imperious arm stretched out straight in front of him, and one impatient hand beating the air like the wings of a large yellow butterfly in its last desperate flutter before metamorphosis into a creeping and crawling thing on earth. But the field behind us, of course, was empty, and the great, grey piece of winter, the tranquil and tranced benediction of a rest well earned by eager earth long wooed and well-beloved by man, lay over the tired and sleeping land. The scene indeed in that gently shrinking moment of daylight stood over itself as if it were an inner dream in the inmost sleep of itself, as if circumstances had contrived to make it conform absolutely to that vision which had made England a blessed thought of heaven on earth to us when we were in prison under Hara, and a rush of bitterness, rudely brushing aside the relief I had felt, went straight to my heart that Hara’s twisted, contorted shape should still be able to walk this intimate and healing scene with us.
I said ‘in prison under Hara’ for though he was not the Commandant he was by far the greatest of the powers that ruled our prison world. He himself was only a third-class sergeant in His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s forces and nominally we had a young subaltern in charge, but that slight young man more resembled an elegant character out of the novels of the great Murasaki or the pillow book of her hated rival than a twentieth-century Samurai. We seldom saw him and his interest in us seemed focused only on the extent to which we could add in variety and number to his collection of wrist-watches. John Lawrence, who had once been assistant military attaché in Tokyo, said he was certain our Commandant was not born in the great hereditary military classes of Japan but was probably a second-class Custom’s official from Kobe or Yokohama who could therefore not be dishonoured as a real soldier would have been by an ignominious appointment to command a camp of despised prisoners of war. But Hara, he said, was the real thing, not of the officer class, but the authentic feudal follower, unhesitatingly accompanying his master and overlords into battle. He had served his masters long and well, had fought in Korea, Manchuria, China, and this unexacting job now, presumably, was his reward.
I don’t know how right Lawrence was, but one thing stood out: Hara had no inferiority complex about his officer. One had only to see them together to realize which was authentic, predestined military material and which merely deriving colour and benefit from war. Scrupulously correct as Hara was in his outward behaviour to his officer, we had no doubt that inwardly he felt superior. He never hesitated to take command of a situation when he thought it necessary. I have seen him on inspections walk rudely in between the Commandant and our ranks, haul out someone who had unwittingly transgressed his mysterious code of what was due on these occasions, and in a kind of semi-conscious epilepsy of fury beat the poor fellow nearly to death with anything that came to hand, while his disconcerted officer took himself and his refined Custom-house senses off to a more tranquil part of the parade-ground. No! Not he but Hara ruled us with a cold, predetermined, carefully conditioned and archaic will of steel as tough as the metal in the large, two-handed sword of his ancestors dangling on his incongruous pre-historic hip.
It was he, Hara, who decided how much or rather how little we had to eat. He ordained when we were driven to bed, when we got up, where and how we paraded, what we read. It was he who ordered that every book among the few we possessed wherein the word ‘kiss’ or mention of ‘kissing’ appeared, should be censored by having the offending pages torn out and publicly burned as an offence against ‘Japanese morality’. It was he who tried to ‘purify’ our thinking by making us in our desperately under-nourished condition go without food for two days at a time, confined in cramped and over-crowded cells, forbidden even to talk so that we could contemplate all the better our perverse and impure European navels. It was he who beat me because a row of beans that he had made my men plant had not come up and he put the failure down to my ‘wrong thinking’. It was he who, when drunk, would babble to me endlessly about Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich whose faces haunted him. He who questioned me for hours about Knights of the Round Table, ‘606’, Salvarsan and the latest drugs for curing syphilis. He mounted and controlled our brutal Korean guards, gave them their orders and made them fanatical converts, more zealous than their only prophet, to his outlook and mood. He made our laws, judged us for offences against them, punished us and even killed some of us for breaking them.
He was indeed a terrible little man, not only in the way that the great Tartar Ivan was terrible but also in a peculiarly racial and demoniac way. He possessed the sort of terribleness that thousands of years of littleness might seek to inflict on life as both a revenge and a compensation for having been so little for so long. He had an envy of tallness and stature which had turned to an implacable hatred of both, and when his demon – an ancient, insatiable and irresistibly compelled aspect of himself that lived somewhere far down within him with a great yellow autonomy and will of its own – stirred in him I have seen him beat-up the tallest among us for no other reason save that they were so much taller than he. Even his physical appearance was both a rejection and a form of vengeance on normality, a vaudeville magnification and a caricature of the Japanese male figure.
He was so short that he just missed being a dwarf, so broad that he was almost square. He hardly had any neck and his head, which had no back to it, sat almost straight on his broad shoulders. The hair on his head was thick and of a midnight-blue. It was extremely coarse and harsh in texture and, cut short, stood stark and stiff like the bristles on a boar’s back straight up in the air. His arms were exceptionally long and seemed to hang to his knees but his legs by contrast were short, extremely thick and so bowed that the sailors with us called him ‘Old Cutlass-legs’. His mouth was filled with big faded yellow teeth, elaborately framed in gold, while his face tended to be square and his forehead rather low and simian. Yet he possessed a pair of extraordinarily fine eyes that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of his features and appearance. They were exceptionally wide and large for a Japanese and with the light and polish and warm, living, luminous quality of the finest Chinese jade in them. It was extraordinary how far they went to redeem this terrible little man from caricature. One looked into his eyes and all desire to mock vanished, for then one realized that this twisted being was, in some manner beyond European comprehension, a dedicated and utterly selfless person.
It was John Lawrence, who suffered more at Hara’s hands than any of us except those whom he killed, who first drew our attention to his eyes. I remember so clearly his words one day after a terrible beating in prison.
‘The thing you mustn’t forget about Hara,’ he had said, ‘is that he is not an individual or for that matter even really a man.’ He had gone on to say that Hara was the living myth, the expression in human form, the personification of the intense, inner vision which, far down in their unconscious, keeps the Japanese people together and shapes and compels their thinking and behaviour. We should not forget two thousand and seven hundred full cycles of his sun-goddess’s rule burnt in him. He was sure no one could be more faithful and responsive to all the imperceptible murmurings of Japan’s archaic and submerged racial soul than he. Hara was humble enough to accept implicitly the promptings of his national spirit. He was a simple, uneducated country lad with a primitive integrity unassailed by higher education, and really believed all the myths and legends of the past so deeply that he did not hesitate to kill for them. Only the day before he had told Lawrence how in Manchuria the sun-goddess had once lifted a train full of soldiers over an undetected Chinese mine laid for them on the track and put them all down again safely on the other side.
‘But just look in his eyes,’ Lawrence had said: ‘there is nothing ignoble or insincere there: only an ancient light, refuelled, quickened and brightly burning. There is something about the fellow I rather like and respect.’
This last sentence was such heresy among us at the time that I protested at once. Nothing Lawrence could say or explain could wash our bête noire blanche or even jaunefor that matter, and I would have none of it.
‘The troops do not call him “Rottang” for nothing,’ I had reminded him severely. ‘Rottang’ is the Malay for the kind of cane Hara was seldom without. The troops christened him that because he would at times, seemingly without cause, beat them over the head and face with it.
‘He can’t help himself,’ John Lawrence had said. ‘It is not he but an act of Japanese gods in him, don’t you see? You remember what the moon does to him!’
And indeed I remembered. The attraction, both the keen conscious and the deep, submerged attraction that all the Japanese feel for the moon seemed to come to a point in Hara. If ever there was a moon-swung, moon-haunted, moon-drawn soul it was he. As the moon waxed – and how it waxed in the soft, velvet sky of Insulinda, how it grew and seemed to swell to double its normal gold and mystically burning proportions in that soft, elastic air; how it swung calmly over the great volcanic valleys like a sacred lamp, while the ground mist, mingling with the smell of cloves, cinnamon and all the fragrant spices of Insulinda drifted among the soaring tree trunks like incense round the lacquered columns of a sequined temple – Yes! as this unbelievable moon expanded and spread its gold among the blacknesses of our jungle night, we saw it draw a far tide of mythological frenzy to the full in Hara’s blood. Seven days, three days before and three days after and on the day of the full moon itself, were always our days of greatest danger with Hara. Most of his worst beatings and all his killings took place then. But once the beating was over and the moon waning, he would be, for him, extraordinarily generous to us. It was as if the beating and killing had purged him of impurities of spirit, of madness and evil in some strange way and made him grateful to them. In fact, the morning after he had cut off the head of one of us, I remembered seeing him talking to Lawrence and being struck by the fact that he had an expression of purified, of youthful and almost springlike innocence on his face, as if the sacrifice of the life of an innocent British aircraftman the night before, had redeemed him from all original as well as private and personal sin, and appeased for the time the hungry bat-like gods of his race.
All this passed through my mind like a dream with the speed and colour of a dream and it was almost as a man half-asleep that I heard Lawrence continue: ‘Yes. It is curious that you too should think of him just then; for I have an anniversary of Hara in me today, that I am not allowed to forget, try as I may. Have I ever told you?’
He had not and, eager to consolidate any contact between us, even this grim, precarious bridge, I said quickly: ‘No! Please tell me.’
Well, it was exactly seven years ago, he said, seven years within an hour or so, allowing for differences of Insulinda and Greenwich mean time. He was lying in a dream beyond the deep, raw, physical pain in his bruised and outraged body, when far away, like a bird perched on the daylight rim of a deep well into which he might have been thrown, he heard the first chee-chak call. Yes, that was it: a chee-chak, one of those agile, translucent little lizards that lived in every hut, house and even deepest dungeons in Insulinda. There were two of them in his cell and he loved them dearly. They had shared his solitary confinement from the beginning and in his affection for them he fancied he could tell them apart, the male from the female, just by the sound of their voices. They were the only living things not Japanese or Korean, not an active, aggressive enemy that he had seen for many weeks. So real had they become to him that he christened them Patrick and Patricia. He knew instantly when he heard the sound, that the sound came from Patricia, and at once he was out of the dream that had consoled and drugged his pain, and back on the damp stone floor with his bruised, stiff, aching and tired body, so tired that it could hardly take note even of the dismay which clutched at his heart the moment Patricia called. For she called like that only when it was well and truly dark, only when the jungle outside had closed its ranks and fallen back on its own black shadows between the purple volcanoes, the better to withstand that sheer, utter obliteration of outline and shape brought about by the overwhelming invasion of the moonless tropical night in the valley outside. It was as if then Patricia herself was afraid and wanted Patrick quickly to rejoin and reassure her that this great black nothingness abolished only the vision of the nearness of her mate and not the nearness itself. There! Patrick had answered her, and Lawrence knew his fear was justified. For this was the hour at which the Japanese usually came for him; this was the time of night when they usually did their torturing. Yes, the details of it were not important, he said, but for weeks they had been torturing him, and the interesting thing was they did it always at night.
I might smile and think him fanciful as I did about his belief that Hara was an embodiment of a myth more than a conscious individual being, even though I had seen for myself how moon-swung Hara and his countrymen were. But that was by no means all there was to it. That was only the elementary beginning of it all. The more complete truth was: they were all still deeply submerged like animals, insects and plants in the succession of the hours, the movement of day into night and of the days into their lunar months and the months into their seasons. They were subject to cosmic rhythm and movement and ruled by cosmic forces beyond their control to an extent undreamt of in the European mind and philosophy. He would have more to say of that presently, but all he had to stress at the moment was this: it was only at night that people so submerged in the raw elements of nature could discover sufficiently the night within themselves – could go down far enough with sun and sunlight into that deep, deep pit of blackness in time and themselves to the bottom of their own unlit natures, where torture was not only natural but inevitable, like the tides of the sea. I may not recognize it, he said, but Patricia and Patrick knew in the nerves and very swish of their tidal tails that a moment of great and ancient dread in the movement of the spheres had come. And hardly had they called, when he heard thejack-booted steps, untidy and slurred as if the boots were mounted on an orang-utan and not a man, coming down the corridor towards his cell.
‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ his lips moved instinctively. ‘Once more please be thou my shepherd.’
As he said this prayer for the third time to himself, the door was unlocked and a Korean guard called out, in a mixture of the crudest Japanese and Malay and in the most arrogant and insolent tone: ‘Kura! You there, come here! Lakas! Quick!’
He got up slowly. He could not in his condition do otherwise, but it was too slow for the guard who jumped into the cell, pulled Lawrence angrily to his feet and pushed him out into the corridor, prodding him with the butt of his rifle and saying again and again: ‘Lakas! Lakas!’ and ‘Quick! Quick!’ as well as making other strange irritated abdominal noises at him. In a few minutes he was marched into the Commandant’s office and there sitting at the Commandant’s desk was not that girlish young subaltern, but Hara himself with a section of the guard, hat in hand and rifles at the side standing respectfully behind him. Lawrence, his eyes hurting as if stung by bees in that fierce electric light, looked round the room for the rest of the inquisition as he called them, that expert band from the Kempeitai, the headquarters of the secret-police, who did the real torturing, but there was not a sign of any of them.
For the first time a feeling of hope so keen and unnerving that his conscious mind would not allow it, assailed him fiercely. True, Hara was one of the band but not the worst. He joined in too but only when that deep sense of an almost mystical necessity to participate in all that a group or herd of his countrymen did, forced him to identify himself with what was going on. It was as if they all were incapable of experiencing anything individually; as if a thought or deed in one was instantly contagion to the rest and the fated plague of cruel-doing like a black or yellow death killed their individual resistance in an instant. Hara, after all, was the Japanese of the Japanese among them and he too would have to join in the torturing. But he never started it and Lawrence knewsomehow that he would have preferred killing outright to protracted torture. With all this in his mind he looked at Hara more closely and noticed that his eyes were unusually bright and his cheeks flushed.
‘He has been drinking,’ he thought, for there was no mistaking in Hara’s cheeks the tell-tale pink that drink brings so easily to the Japanese face. ‘And that accounts for the glitter in his eye. I had better watch out.’
He was right about the flush in Hara’s cheeks but wrong about the light in his eye, for suddenly Hara said, with a curl of the lip that might have been a smile strangled at birth: ‘Rorensu-san: do you know Fazeru Kurīsumasu?’
The unexpected use of the polite ‘san’ to his name so nearly unnerved Lawrence that he could hardly concentrate on the mysterious ‘Fazeru Kurīsumasu’ in Hara’s question, until he saw the clouds of incomprehension at his slowness, which usually preluded frenzy, gathering over Hara’s impatient brow. Then, he got it.
‘Yes, Hara-san,’ he said slowly. ‘I know of Father Christmas.’
‘Heh-to!’ Hara exclaimed, hissing with polite gratification between his teeth, a gleam of gold sparkling for a moment between his long lips. Then sitting far back in his chair, he announced: ‘Tonight I am Fazeru Kurīsumasu!’ Three or four times he made this astonishing statement, roaring with laughter.
Lawrence joined in politely without any idea what it really meant. He had been lying there in his cell alone, under sentence of death, for so long that he hardly knew the hour of the night beyond the fact that it was normal torture hour, and he had no idea of the date or month; he certainly had no idea that it was Christmas.