Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book review: "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz

"The Long Walk" combines a great story with outstanding writing and is spiced up with a dash of controversy.

First, the story: At the outset of World War II, 24-year-old Polish soldier Slavomir Rawicz is captured by the Russians and sent to a Siberian gulag. The forced labor, near-starvation diet, and freezing temperatures don't sit too well with Rawicz and six of his fellow prisoners and they decide they might like it better elsewhere. They escape, and start walking out of Russia, through Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, into Tibet and then over the Himalayas (in the winter, no less) into India. It's not called "The Long Walk" for nothing.

Maybe you think 4,000 miles of walking would make for a tedious story. Far from it. As Rawicz tells it, the men battled hunger, thirst, ice, snow and severe temperatures. Time and again, they seemed on the verge of death, only to be revived by the fortunate discovery of a trickle of water in the desert, or a kind sheepherder offering a meal. (Helpful tip: If you're crossing the Gobi Desert, a snake makes a lovely snack. OK, it's the ONLY possible snack.) Still, not all of them make it through alive.

I've read a lot of survival stories and there are few that can match "The Long Walk" in terms of the length of the suffering endured by those involved. The only two that come to mind are the ill-fated Antarctic journey of Ernest Shackleton and the tale of Louis Zamperini, whose story of torture and abuse in Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II is told in Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken."

I was so absorbed by "The Long Walk" that I was saddened to read, after I finished, that in recent years an amateur researcher named Linda Willis found documents suggesting that Rawicz never took this journey. The documents imply that Rawicz did not escape, but was released as part of a general amnesty after the period when he was supposedly walking to freedom. This doesn't mean that no one did this walk some believe Rawicz may have been told about the harrowing march by others and passed off the story as his own.

(Another possibility: A different prisoner may have taken Rawicz's name and identity after he escaped, resulting in that name showing up on the on the documents Linda Willis found. This is not unheard of in the ragged world of prisons. A prisoner may have believed he would get better treatment, or be released sooner, under Rawicz's name.) 

It's incredible to me that this widely read book, released in 1956 and translated into 25 languages, endured for over 50 years before these documents emerged. Why did it take so long? Rawicz died in 2004, so he can't respond.

The documents unearthed by Willis raise serious doubts, but they don't definitively disprove Rawicz's story either. My own feeling is that in the book Rawicz describes an amazing amount of detail including some events that reflect badly on him for someone who supposedly wasn't there. I wonder if he did hike part of the journey, but did not cross the Himalayas. He hurries through this latter section relatively quickly and, in the book's most head-shaking assertion, claims the group saw two abominable snowmen in the mountains.

All that said, I do have to give credit to the writing: The book is first-person, but was actually ghostwritten by English newspaperman Ronald Downing, and I'm sure Downing deserves much of the credit for a story that is told crisply and clearly, while avoiding overwrought emotionalism. Downing's clear descriptions are excellent examples of how to "show" readers rather than simply tell them. For example, early in the book, Rawicz and hundreds of other prisoners are on their way to their prison camp when a ferocious blizzard hits:

"The tufts of hardy broad-bladed grass, a roadside feature all through the march, bent over, swung and gyrated under the whiplash of the wind with a constant swishing and whistling. The snow hissed and sizzled as it drove against the fires. We stamped around to save our frozen feet from frostbite, huddled our hands in our fufaikas, damned the storm and wondered how we were going to get out of this place."

With that kind of writing, the author doesn't need to tell you that it's bitterly cold, you can FEEL it.

No comments:

Post a Comment