Picks and Pans Review: The Railway Man

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Eric Lomax

Kanchanaburi, Thailand, 1943. In a Japanese P.O.W. camp, a young Scottish officer, charged with possession of an illicit radio, is beaten by the military police. "I went down with a blow that shook every bone," Eric Lomax reports with chilling precision. "I could identify the periodic stamping of boots on the back of my head, crunching my face into the gravel; the crack of bones snapping, my teeth breaking...the pounding on my pelvic bones and the base of my spine..."

More days of torture lay ahead. Though Lomax survived to write this extraordinary book (the title reflects his lifelong passion for trains), the memory of those horrendous beatings never left him. In particular he would recall a Japanese interpreter, a small man who spoke with almost no inflection: "Lomax, we have already examined your colleagues...you are guilty.... Lomax, you will be killed shortly."

Damaged emotionally as well as physically, Lomax nevertheless made his way in the postwar world: there were years in Africa for the Colonial Service and a return to academic life in his native Scotland. He endured a failed first marriage, was strengthened by a fine second one. Always, everywhere, for more than 40 years, he searched for clues to the identities of the men who had tortured him. "As the events receded," he tells us, "the obsession grew."

Then in 1989 the wife of another ex-P.O.W. sent him a Japan Times article about Nagase Takashi, an interpreter who had helped the Allied armies find their dead after the war. There was a photograph; Lomax recognized the now 71-year-old man. Mrs. Lomax wrote to him, identifying her husband, and Mr. Takashi, still burdened by guilt for his association with torture, replied promptly. He would meet with his former victim. "The dagger of your letter," he told Mrs. Lomax, "thrusted me into my heart to the bottom."

A year later, Takashi and Lomax met again, in Thailand near the site of the prison camp at which their lives had first intersected. The account of their reunion is not just another tribute to the powers of forgiveness. It is inspiring, a dagger that thrusts to the bottom of the heart. (Norton, $22)

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