Picks and Pans Review: To the Kwai—and Back

updated 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ronald Searle

The British artist, noted for his satiric cartoons, did the drawings in this book during World War II: "I was twenty-one years old when I was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the capitulation of Singapore in February 1942, and a repellently diseased twenty-five-year-old when I was released from Changi Gaol on that same island, in August 1945." He had been an art student before joining the army in 1939. In captivity, "Much of the time I was either too tired, too ill, or too cowardly to take the risk of being seen drawing." At the war's end, however, he survived with about 400 drawings that make up this remarkable book. The first works show scenes from his early life in the military: men peeling potatoes, men on maneuvers, a soldier writing a letter home. They are pen sketches, with a wash, typical of that time. When his troopship pauses at Cape Town, South Africa, the drawings that result look like illustrations for a travel book. It is only after Searle is in Changi prison camp that his work takes on a power unlike that of any other he has shown. The drawings are documents of degraded life: men trying to shave, men lining up for rice, prisoners cooking scraps with eyes glazed by hunger and fear. There is such an immediacy in this art that it's difficult to believe all this happened to Searle more than 40 years ago. His splendid book is a graphic, unforgettable document that rails against war in the most effective manner. (Atlantic Monthly, $29)

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