Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘adventure’

long walkFirst published in 1956, mine’s a used 2010 reprint in paperback, presumably intended to cash in on publicity for the Peter Weir movie, “The Way Back” – 2011 – and which is allegedly based on true events. It’s a best seller, half a million copies sold, and translated into 25 languages. But there’s a problem with it.

We begin with the narrator, Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish officer, wrongly arrested for spying by the Russians after the invasion of Poland in 1939. He’s tortured into signing a false confession which results in his being sentenced to 25 years hard labour in the infamous Gulag system and is sent to one of the remotest labour camps in northern Siberia from where he escapes with a group of fellow captives. But instead of heading east, the more obvious and shorter route to freedom, via a boat to Japan, they go south, walk four thousand miles, through Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, the Himalaya and eventually find sanctuary in British India.

Apart from being an epic of adventure and survival, this would be one of the earliest known accounts of life in the Gulags, perhaps the more famous being Alekzander Solzenystin’s “Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch (1966)”, so it might be considered quite a find for anyone interested in that period of Soviet history. Solzenystin’s story, though based upon his own harrowing experiences in the Gulag around the same period, is sold purely as literary fiction, whereas the Long Walk is sold as heroic fact.

However,…

Rawicz’s arrest and torture, also his transportation by railway cattle-wagon to Siberia ring true enough, but his depiction of events at the camp began arouse suspicion, suddenly reading more like a boy’s own comic-book story, especially when held up against Solzenystin’s forensic descriptions of actual camp life in “Ivan Denisovitch”. Then we are sold a somewhat simplistic escape, implausibly aided by the commandant’s wife, to say nothing of being persuaded malnourished men could travel thirty miles a day, on foot, over trackless tundra in the teeth of a Siberian winter. And then there’s the eerie encounter with a couple of Yetis.

All of this gave me pause, so I set the book aside and did some digging.

Sure enough there’s been considerable controversy about the veracity of this story ever since publication. Ghost-written by Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, the suspicion is that the pair have spun us all a bit of a yarn. Later documentary evidence suggests Rawicz was actually released from the Gulag in 1942, that while the early part of the book might be based upon the facts of his arrest and torture, the escape is pure fiction.

Or is it?

Well, here’s where we leave the text of the story and turn instead to the story of the story, as traced by researchers working on the film adaptation. They became aware of the controversy early on and wanted to get to the bottom of things, like was it a true story or not? Their researches duly turned up another man living in Cornwall called Witold Glinski. Glinski claims to have been the one who actually made the journey, that he never spoke a word of it to anyone, except to British officials on his arrival in India. The explanation for his silence, he said, was on account of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer who’d threatened him and, on settling in England, he’d not wanted to draw attention to himself for fear of his life.

On subsequent publication of Rawciz’s “true story”, Glinski recognised the gist of his own escape, including details of his companions, though with much added that was implausible. It was then he recalled being accosted by a pair of chancers back in the 1940’s, wanting to know how he came to England, and whom he suspects were actually Downing and Rawciz. He told them nothing but speculates they had somehow got hold of the transcript of his interview with officials at the Polish embassy, and wanted to pass the story off as Rawciz’s. That said there is no evidence to support Glinski’s claims either, so we’re still left wondering.

There is however tantalising evidence that someone did indeed make that incredible journey, this being from the account of a retired British intelligence officer who recalled interviewing a group of ragged men who had come out of the Himalaya, claiming to have escaped from Siberia, an account corroborated by a Polish engineer who had acted as translator.

While much has obviously been lost in the fog of war, on balance it seems likely the story is true at its heart, though it’s less likely we’ll ever know the real identities of the men who took part, or what happened to them afterwards. The only thing that seems certain from here is that Rawciz was not one of those men, and it’s for this reason his character was written out of the movie.

I didn’t finish the book, felt a bit cheated by it actually, and didn’t get past that encounter with the Yeti. Still, it’s a remarkable tale in many ways, though not for the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would rather have had Glinsky’s version of events.

Read Full Post »

slater bridgeA traveller in a strange land sits down to rest by the bank of a river. He’s unsure of the geography and has no map to guide his way. All he knows is he wants to cross the river to find out what’s on the other side, preferably before nightfall. He’s heard lots of stories about the land across the river, most of which he suspects are probably made up because they’re so contradictory, and everyone he speaks to on the subject has a different opinion, to say nothing of a variety of dogmatic beliefs, so he’d like to go there for himself and see what’s what. Strangely the far bank is shrouded in mist, so he can only make out the vague forms of rocks and trees. Listening carefully over the sound of the river, he can hear the calls of unknown creatures and, at times, more softly, something that sounds like voices and the laughter of a people at ease with themselves.

He’s anxious to make way, to cross over, but the traveller is a cautious man; for navigation, experience has taught him to trust only the evidence of his own eyes, that the natives hereabouts, although they speak his language, are notoriously unreliable when giving directions – sometimes helpful, sometimes deliberately misleading, and sometimes so self-deluded they might think they’re being helpful, when in fact they’re not.

All the traveller want to know is if there’s a bridge by which he can cross the river, if he can reach it before nightfall, and if he should go upstream or downstream to get there? What could be simpler?

A native comes along and the traveller asks him the question, to which the native confidently replies: go upstream, there’s a bridge just five minutes away and you can safely cross long before nightfall. But the native might be lying and the traveller is very tired – he doesn’t want to waste his energy with a wild goose chase, so he waits until another native comes along, then asks the same question. Go downstream, says the native; there’s a good bridge not five minutes away and you can easily cross, long before nightfall.

The traveller is confused. It would be more reliable to toss a coin or consult an oracle, than ask the natives. It’s not that the natives have ever been hostile to him, indeed they generally appear warm and friendly, but he suspects this is because travellers such as he always carry gold coins, and with a bit of guile, the more naïve travellers can easily be parted from them.

The third native who comes along says the same thing as the first, and the traveller wonders if he should go with the majority view and head upstream, until the fourth native agrees with the second. Then another native comes along and laughs, says there is no bridge in either direction, that all talk of bridges is the result of delusional thinking, and that anyway there can be nothing interesting worth visiting on the other side of the river, and why would the traveller want to bother himself with all that nonsense anyway? Instead he gives directions to a nearby village where he says a beautiful young woman, who he describes as his sister, will be very glad to entertain the traveller for a small fee. The traveller politely declines this offer and continues to wait on the riverbank for a solution to his dilemma.

But nightfall is approaching and, without shelter, the traveller is afraid of wolves, robbers and vampires, all of which the natives have assured him come out and prey upon the benighted. He knows the natives are not to be trusted in anything, but his own imagination will not allow him to ignore the possibility of something unpleasant befalling him after dark. Perhaps it would be wiser then to seek out that village after all and avail himself of its comforts, at least until morning.

But if he can find a bridge and cross over the river, he reasons, he might find a more comfortable resting place and a traveller’s inn that would have the good taste not to tempt him with dubious comforts, but instead offer a more honourable fayre. And from the contented murmur he can still hear coming from the other side, he suspects there are no wolves there, nor robbers, nor vampires, and that a man may sleep out in the open, under the stars without fear of being molested.

Another native happens along and the traveller wonders if this man can be persuaded to tell the truth in exchange for a gold coin. But there is nothing to stop the man from taking the traveller’s coin and still point him in the wrong direction (it wouldn’t be the first time). Similarly the natives are totally unreliable as hired guides, insisting on payment in advance, then like as not leading travellers into a trackless wilderness before spiriting themselves away just as night falls. Wisely, he lets the native go on his way.

Instead, the traveller cuts a branch from a tree, sharpens one end of it and drives it into the earth, to form a stout marker. Then, in bold letters, he carves into it the message:

Here I was, before I went wrong.

He tosses a coin for direction, and heads upstream.

Read Full Post »