Describes the four-thousand-mile journey across the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas of seven men who escaped from a Siberian prison camp. The harrowing true tale of escaped Soviet prisoners desperate march out of Siberia, through China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and over the Himalayas to British India.
Whilst doing research for this review, I discovered that another man claimed that Rawicz had stolen his story. Witold Glinski says that the events in The Long Walk actually happened to him. Glinski claims Rawicz read an account of his voyage in the Polish embassy in London, and based the book on that recollection. In retrospect, this explains the curious character of the book. The book is incredible, but too incredible to be fake. There is just something about the book that rings true. But nonetheless, the book has a dreamy character, with strange bits that probably are the result of Rawicz making things up that he didn't really know. Reading Glinski's account makes much more sense of the things that happened, the flow is better, and nothing seems out of place.
Accusations had been leveled against Rawicz from the moment the book was published, but the BBC discovered evidence that Rawicz was in fact serving with the Polish Army after being released from the gulag during the time the events in the book occurred.
Despite all that, I liked this book. Given that it does seem to be based upon true events, it is still worth a read, even if it wasn't Rawicz who actually walked to India. There are a couple interesting things in the book that I noted. One thing that came to mind only because I am reading The Science of Conjecture by James Franklin, is the Soviets had a strange insistence upon obtaining confessions. Rawicz/Glinsky spent several months in the Lubyanka prison while the NKVD was attempting to obtain his confession. In retrospect, this seems strange. Why bother? There was not really any danger of a popular uprising in the WWII period, they did not need to obtain confessions.
However, going back to the 10th century in Continental Law, there was a preference for confession above all other forms of proof in legal cases, due to the difficulty of interpretation of other kinds of evidence. Confession was felt to be unambiguous in ways that other kinds of testimony were not, primarily for religious reasons. This struck me as funny, in a perverse way, that the Soviets insisted on confessions for their show trials when the ultimate reason for doing so traces back to the Torah.
This book is also excellent for the sense of the vast emptiness it effectively creates. Central Asia has a whole lotta nothing going on, and this book will make that impression stick in your mind.
Narrative Context: High
Subject: Personal narrative, survival, epic adventure, imprisonment, escape, freedom, torture, labor camp, war, World War II, 20th century, Poland, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia, Tibet
Pacing: Fast-paced. The plot moves the story along.
Tone: Direct and understated.
Similar Titles or Authors: As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me: the Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Escape from a Siberian Labor Camp and His Three Year Trek to Freedom by Josef Bauer; Rescued by Mao: World War II, Wake Island, and My Remarkable Escape to Freedom Across Mainland China by William L. Taylor; The Man the Nazis Couldn’t Catch by John Laffin; Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby; Escape from Archangel: an American Merchant Seaman at War by Thomas E. Simmons; The Flame Keepers: the True Story of an American Soldier’s Survival at War by Edward A. Handy; The Last Escape: the Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War In Germany, 1944-45 by John Nichol; We Die Alone by David Armine Howarth; The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: the Full Story of How 76 Allied Officers Carried Out World War II’s Most Remarkable Mass Escape by Tim Carroll; We Refused to Die: My Time as a Prisoner of War in Bataan and Japan, 1942-1945 by Gene Samuel Jacobsen
Whole Collection Context: Empire of the Sun by J. G.
Special Features: Map of journeys to and away from gulag.
Learning/Experiencing: Exciting and unbelievable survival experience; learning about Russian labor camps during WW II.
Characterizations: Story told from narrators point of view, but there are a small number of sympathetic secondary characters.
Story Line: Escape from enemies to freedom, but also survival in extremes of weather and hunger/thirst and psychological endurance. Pretty incredible.
Language: Clear, straightforward, unembellished.
Setting: Setting is extremely important to the story. The escapees crossed 4000 miles of Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet in extremes of cold and snow, heat, hunger and thirst, and difficult terrain.
One such volume – at-least in its paperback incarnation -- was The Long walk, by Slavomir Rawicz, a work which has stayed in-print more or less continually, including audio-book format, more-or-less continually since its first appearance ages ago. And there is good reason for it. In short, the eponymous long walk was the desperate trek made by Rawicz and a few others from a Russian prison-camp, across Siberia and Central Asia, and over the great mountain-ramparts of the Subcontinent. The tale is told with a reticence that is as appalling for its silent suggestiveness as almost any detailed narrative could possibly be. From time to time I read about or meet so-called “survivalists” and just turn the other way. Of a certain TV show, I will not even sully this page by writing the name. Anyway, all these so-called “survivalists”, at-least in my experience, have never had to face the worst peril or all, the power of concerted, organized, implacable evil, or – close behind it – not any idea with five-hundred miles – of where they were, where they could go, or what they might there or along the way. And that is putting quite aside extreme heat and cold, starvation, and disease. Not so incidentally, it is my observation that it is pretty dam’ easy to be a survivalist when you know there’s a hot shower waiting for you sooner or later, -- and then a computer on which you can blog your so-called adventures to a bunch of other yahoos who really do need to get out more. Compared to the march of Rawicz’s little band, Scott’s expedition to the Pole was a carol-sing, and Bligh’s trip in the open boat just so much punting on the Thames.
I don’t know whether that old high-school teacher ever actually saw that treasured paperback of The Long walk. If he had, I fear that the cover-art would have led him to consign it to that conceptual Inferno of “machine-gun history”. But if he did so, he was wrong.
He decides he's not about to spend 25 years there, and makes plans to escape. He enlists six other men, a Latvian, an American, other Poles, and they sneak out in the night. Their escape plan will take them through Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, up and down the Himalayas, and through India.
It's an incredible story. I couldn't put it down once I got started. Sometimes there were gaps in the story, but it was absolutely gripping. Really worth reading.
In the period after World war 2, there were many accounts by individuals (particularly combatants) which make a gripping rip-roaring read. They don't always stand up to close historical scrutiny, but should they be treated as self-aggrandisement, monuments to the fallibility and unreliability of human memory, or as examples of the skills of the authors and ghost writers to spice things up and create a good story?
Here are a few examples:
Roald Dahl's accounts of wartime experience in the RAF. They are crisply written, but I sometimes can't get over the suspicion that Dahl never let anything get in the way of a neat and dramatic sentence, or a good story-telling device.
Herbert Werner's "Iron Coffins" is a German submariner's memoir, some parts of which can be more easily verified then others. Pierre Clostermann's "The Big Show" is an account of a Free French officer in the RAF full of striking images and accounts. Others, and offical records too, may describe things differently. However, I'll never forget his comparison of a glimpse of the underbelly of an enemy aircraft to the underbelly of a pike seen in the Mayenne river in his earlier life.
"Official records" may be equally suspect. To return to "The Long Walk", did the NKVD keep precise and completely unbiased records of all their prisoners? This was the Stalinist era, after all, one infamous for bending official accounts to political or face-saving ends. From another aspect, would Rawicz have willingly subjected a Russian officer's wife who helped him to the risk of the gulag experience herself? This would be the logical consequence of identifying her in the story as having materially aided his escape.
Personal accounts of wartime or personal events sometimes contain things that just can't have happened (sightings of aircraft that just didn't exist except in a propagandist's mind), but they may reflect the way that individual "saw" them at the time, codifed them in memory or rationalised their experiences in retrieving them.
My take on "The Long Walk" is that it's probably best to treat it in a similar (but somewhat less artistic) way to Guy Sajer's "The Unknown Soldier". It doesn't stand up to scrutiny as a true-life account, but within the patchwork there are there are many parts which could reflect or evoke the real-life experiences of various individuals living through very strange and harsh times and events. I'm leaving certain mythical creatures well outside the scope of this view, however.
Incidentally, if you like a touch of the absurd, read the footnote in Wikipedia about the man who claimed that "The Long Walk" was in fact "his story" - there's a beautifully deadpan comment here. Unless of course it's been superseded or edited by the time you go to read it....
I do not doubt the authenticity of the 'pre-escape' experiences of interrogation and torture, farcical trial, transportation to the Gulag, and prison life (although whether such experiences belong to the author is another matter entirely), but I most certainly do doubt the authenticity of some of the fugitives' experiences. For example, if one is to read this story as a true historical account one must believe that a man can survive a 12 day trek across the Gobi Desert without water. I am unconvinced. Further, one must believe that after such an ordeal a man could then survive a crossing of the Himalayas, scaling mountain after mountain, with no real mountaineering equipment and very few basic provisions. This must surely stretch one's credulity.
Yet even if one were to accept The Long Walk as an accurate account, one must still confront the most bizarre passage of the book – the Abominable Snowman. Yes, Sasquatch does indeed make an appearance. I am not here claiming that Bigfoot doesn't exist, but to believe that after all they have experienced throughout their journey, the escapees are also fortunate enough to stumble across such an elusive creature... No; I just cannot believe it.
It is this reviewer's opinion that The Long Walk is essentially (though not completely) a work of fiction, or at the very least a greatly exaggerated and contorted version of the truth. Yet this does not mean it should be avoided; as a story it is wonderfully inspirational – had it been published as such I am sure it would have become a modern classic. Would I have read it had I known of its contents beforehand? Probably not, but I'm glad I did.
If this book is to be read as fiction, then don’t bother. It is flat monotone, lacking in character, plot or descriptive development or advancement. There are much better stories out there. As another reviewer has said once you get to the escape from the Gulag it all becomes a bit of a dirge. Not worth turning the pages for.
However it is presented as non-fiction and that it is how I read it. As such it is an astonishing account of human endeavour, endurance and survival against all the odds. An inspirational read for what the human spirit can endure. It was not relayed by a literate, skilled story teller. No doubt the ghost writer did the best he could with the tale as told to him. Some slack has to be cut for any lack of precision or accuracy, as after all, day after endless month of walking in extreme conditions, it is going to be impossible to recollect events with any certainty. Some will stick but the arduous endeavours will confuse and warp the memories.
With this goodwill in mind and after putting down the book, niggles began to surface. Why could they not navigate at night by the stars, would their footwear not wear out, was it really possible to survive so many days without water or why was it so late in the day that they decided to eat snakes? Niggles and inconsistencies just kept on coming.
More fundamentally publishers usually go to some lengths to establish the provenance of the non-fiction they are presenting. Here there was nothing, no biopic, no factual checks about the Commanding Officer and his wife at the Gulag, no research into consequences of this audacious escape, no contemporary recollections of the extraordinary arrival of these men, no follow up on how this epic struggle influenced their later lives. Nothing.
Another explanation was that it was a tale of a tale, as told to the ghost writer. The escapees were not selected but opportunists who took advantage of the way out created. Then just followed, never bonding, never accepting or disputing a leader. This is even more incredulous, at some low point there was never a splinter group that went off a different way, near to death or at those moments of excitement at the prospect of hope, there was no sharing of intimacies.
Whichever way you look at it, it just does not stack up. A tale of a thinly recollected nightmare, a tale of a tale that demeans an actual epic journey or just, as it is, bad fiction. Not worth the bother of turning a page for.
It's told in a very matter of fact way, with the hardships described in quite spare detail. And it does get a little emotional at several stages along the way. At times you wonder can it be real, as they manage to survive thngs that seem to be quite unendurable. And it makes you wonder what you'd do when put in that situation - is the faint sniff of the chance of liberty worth risking everything for when all you have to look forward to is a long hard death? Maybe.
There is debate as to how true this is, or if the author actually experienced any of it. There are reports of other prisoners walking to freedom, in which case, this can easily stand a a memorial to all that tried, regardless of if they suceeded or not.
The only thing that I found was that the book ends quite abruptly, and you are left wanting to know more about how these men survived in society thereafter. Was the hardship the endured in the search for freedom worthwhile? If given the chance to go back, would they do the same thing agan?