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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.

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