Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed

the railway manI. The Railway Man [1995] by Eric Lomax – ★★★★

Those who experienced evil may forget it, but those who committed it – never” (A. Mare).

This is a true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army Officer and ex-Prisoner-of-War (POW) during the World War II, who was tortured and held in confinement while he and his fellow comrades were forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway line. Years after the WWII, he came face-to-face with one of his captors – Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase, a meeting that finally led to a reconciliation. This is Lomax’s incredible true story, which is an inspirational and moving read. 

The book begins with Lomax’s childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1920s, later telling of his youth in the 1930s. He was an avid collector (“I collected things as a way of making sense of the world’s confusion“), lover of trains and technology (having an “incurable interest in railways“), even though a bit of a loner and “bored” with academic subjects. His passion for trains/steam engines (“the most beautiful machines produced in the industrial revolution“) and communications was so great that he applied to be a telegraphist at a post office, and also later studied electrical engineering and radio mechanics. He was also a member of the Baptist sect (“the moral conviction of [having found God] helped me to survive what came later”), and was later drafted to serve as part of the Royal Signals when the WWII started: “I was pitchforked into work straight from school; from work into the army; from the army into hell”. His destination was Asia, “to defend the eastern borders“.

siam burma railwayAfter serving some time in Asia, his troops found themselves surrounded by the enemy, resigned to their fate and later forced by the Japanese to build the “Death Railway” (the Burma-Siam line): railways have always broken the bodies and spirits of their builders, I knew that already: the Panama Railway cost the lives of one in five of its workforce; the rail roads across the Rockies had demanded appalling sacrifices; the Alpine tunnels were considered to be death traps, even for the well-fed peasant boys who built them”. Even though Lomax was forced to endure round-the-clock interrogations, beatings, starvation, and different types of torture (from waterboarding to sleep deprivation and imposed silence), as well as live in awful sanitary conditions, he remained vigilant: “I still wanted to learn, to improve”. His natural stubbornness and quick thinking, as well as luck, saved him eventually from the worst.  

Lomax’s book is insightful in a way it shows how the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was poorly understood after the WWII and its effects were not properly recognised. If people returned from the war in one piece, they were assumed to have “survived” and expected to carry on with their lives as normal – as though nothing has happened. Few guessed that these people continued to wage the war in their minds. It is unbelievable how a person can function normally after he was told numerous times previously by the enemy that he would be killed any moment now, any minute, day or week, and he was already “prepared” for that. Lomax experienced that and much worse, and was miraculously saved from this fate. Some part of him, however, – his mind- continued to function in that stressful condition even after the war ended.

The information that his death was imminent had a profound effect on him (as it would be on anyone). It is precisely this indeterminacy when he was going to be killed (he was sure he would) that was unbearable:You will be killed shortly”…a flat neutral piece of information, almost a conversational remark. I had just been sentenced to death by a man of my own age who looked as if he were a little detached from his surroundings, and who seemed completely indifferent to my fate. I had no reason to doubt him.” 

Understandably, after his experience of being a POW, it became difficult for Lomax to relate fully to people who never experienced what he was forced to experience: “I was more worried about my physical injuries: my arms, my exhaustion, the skin diseases…I didn’t understand yet that there are experiences you can’t walk away from, and there is no statue of limitations on the effects of torture“. He also experienced loneliness and isolation, having troubles talking about his experience, as others did not understand what he was going through, never having been in his shoes: “many people could not accept the reality of our injuries…because they had not been there, because they could not make the leap of imagination out of their comfortable lives“. After his war interrogations, he found “demands for information” in day-to-day life unbearable and “found it difficult to tolerate grey areas in my life, to accept ambiguity or uncertainty of any kind”. Moreover, he was also finding it hard “to sympathise with other people’s smaller misfortunes“. 

Lomax finally took an unprecedented move in the 1990s to seek out some of those people who were responsible for his torture (he initially planned revenge for them). His meeting with one of his interrogators from the year 1943 might just have been an act of final closure for him as he knew he had to start making peace with his past if he were to carry on with his life. The book becomes rather emotional by the end. 

I cannot say I appreciated the writing style, and some aspects of Eric Lomax’s life could have been amplified and not rushed, while others could have been condensed. However, the book is still an eye-opening, unflinching account which is an important, unique and unforgettable read. 

mozart the man revealedII. Mozart: The Man Revealed [2016] by John Suchet – ★★★1/2

This curious, beautifully-illustrated book tells of Mozart’s life from childhood to his death at the age of 35. Mozart knew of his musical genius and was comfortable among world royalties and celebrities since he was a child when his father started to show him and his sister off across Europe as part of a tour. The book focuses on Mozart’s difficult relationship with his controlling father, on his romantic relationships, on his professional successes and (even!) failures, and on his behind-the-scenes activities when he worked on such masterworks as The Marriage of Figaro [1786] and Don Giovanni [1787].  

The book starts by detailing Mozart’s birth and childhood in Salzburg. His father was a strict and controlling (even tyrannical) person who started to exploit Mozart and his sister’s musical abilities relentlessly early on, touring his children throughout Europe and boasting of his pair of prodigies. This section of the book is a fascinating read as we learn that Mozart was more than just a very gifted child – he was a true genius, composing his first symphony at the age of only eight years old. We then read about Mozart’s growing interest in girls as he was reaching his puberty and his first attempt to separate himself from his father. The great thing about Suchet’s book is that it sometimes focuses on little-known details from Mozart’s life, including his brief friendship with another young and talented musician Thomas Linley The Younger and his initial failures to reach court positions in Germany. The book then tells of his eventual marriage to Constanze Weber, his unparalleled professional success in Vienna, of the death of his mother, before detailing his own still-controversial death. The remarkable thing is that Mozart briefly met young Ludwig van Beethoven when the latter came to Mozart to show off his talent in Vienna with the possibility of becoming Mozart’s pupil. Mozart was very impressed with Beethoven’s talent of musical improvisation. It is a pity that this was the first and last time the duo met (Beethoven was called to Bonn shortly afterwards)  – who knows what would have been the outcome of this partnership. 

The weakness of Suchet’s attempt to talk about Mozart and his life is that it is rather anecdotal in nature, sometimes simplifying matters that were ongoing in Mozart’s life at each of its stages. The author has good intentions of demystifying the man that was Mozart, but, in trying to make the narrative fun and enjoyable, he also makes many assumptions, for example, assumptions regarding what this or that turn of phrase in this or that letter might have meant. The outcome is that the account does not present the true versions of these people or their lives, but mere interpretations based on deduction and thin evidence. Moreover, it is very surprising to read that the author, who considers himself a music expert, thinks that The Magic Flute opera was based ona completely original story” by Emanuel Schikaneder [2016: 241]. It was not an original story by Schikaneder. He took much from Christoph Martin Wieland’s Dschinnistan [1785-1789] collection, which are selected fairy-tales.

Mozart: The Man Revealed is an insightful book which is a pleasure to read, demonstrating to us that Mozart who was a brilliant eccentric – starting when he was a child without having proper childhood, and finishing, when he became one of the most talented musicians who has ever lived. The downside of the book is that it speculates way too much on the little evidence that it has in its reserve (letters to and from Mozart’s father), providing us with the account which is, at best – anecdotal and, at its worst – quite misleading. 

See also my other posts in this series – Recent History Non-Fiction Reads and Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads.

11 thoughts on “Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed

  1. I haven’t read The Railway Man, but I remember seeing the movie. Not long ago I read Regeneration by Pat Barker, about the PTSD suffered by soldiers during WWI. Makes you wonder about the thousands of returned soldiers who never received the psychiatric care or even simple understanding and compassion that they needed.

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    1. I think I should read Regeneration, thanks a lot for this recommendation! – the topic really interests me. Some of these soldiers with PTSD must have been so shunned and misunderstood that it only added to their trauma and misery. I imagine the situation after the WWI was even worse for them than after the WWII given the advances made in psychiatry. It is really awful to think about the injustice, and these were the people who put their lives on the line to protect the society and people – what a repay for some of them.

      I know about the film with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, but have seen the trailer only. Perhaps, I should watch it. I can see by the trailer that the film dramatised some events in the book because I have not (really) read about them.

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      1. From what I have read I think the film does take some poetic license, which is generally what happens when books are adapted for film. But it was still deeply impacting. Regeneration takes place during WWI, and shows the push to rehabilitate these men suffering shell-shock and get them back to the front. It is quite a sobering book but well worth the read.

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    1. The Railway Man was very interesting. It was a very honest account, though I had this feeling when reading it that the author still had trouble talking about what happened back then and wanted to talk more about his happier memories.

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      1. That makes sense. I guess even if you’re trying to be honest it’s hard to sit with those kind of memories and the accompanying feelings too long. Like another commenter mentioned the Regeneration books are excellent examinations of trauma in the soldiers of that period, if you haven’t read those. They’re really worthwhile.

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  2. Too bad that the Mozart book doesn’t find the right balance regarding assumptions / speculation. I’ve always been fascinated by Mozart and his music and would love to read more about his life. I wasn’t even aware of his sister being musically talented as well.

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    1. The Mozart book is still a fun read if you bear in mind that the author generalises and speculates. Mozart’s sister was not near as talented as Mozart, of course, but it is interesting to read about her musical progress too. Mozart’s father was amazed to see how young Mozart surpassed his older (by five years) sister in many ways when he was merely a toddler. Perhaps, Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson is a better biography of Mozart. I personally have not read it, but wanted to pick it up too.

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