Thursday, March 5, 2009
The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz
I lay thinking and listening to the bumping of my heart. I remembered that I had not said goodbye to Ushakova. I decided she would not have wanted me to. The hours dragged by. Gradually the hut grew quiet. There was a loud snoring from someone. A man babbled in his sleep. Someone, barely awake, got up and stoked the stove near his bunk.
Smith tapped my shoulder. "Now," he whispered. Gently I shook Kolemenos. "Now, " I repeated.
I don't really know what to say about The Long Walk, it is perhaps one of the most incredible testaments to the strength of human will. I have no qualms calling Rawicz's escape the most epic in the history of incarceration. Seven men bolted from a Russian prison camp in 1941 and journeyed over 4,000 miles, on foot, with a week's worth of food, an axe, and a knife as their only supplies.
4,000 miles south through the Siberian arctic, the unforgiving wasteland of the Gobi desert, and over and through the Himalayas. ON FOOT FOR CHRIST'S SAKE. Just sitting here writing it out blows my mind that anyone survived to put the tale on paper.
That said, The Long Walk as literature is a disappointment. Written by Rawicz himself, apparently with no help from a professional writer, The Long Walk reads like a textbook. A boring one at that. I mean, let's give the guy some credit. He fought for the Polish cavalry in the Great War. He was then accused of espionage for no reason other than the fact that he lived in Eastern Poland under Stalin's regime. After months of imprisonment and a mockery of a trial, he is sentenced to twenty-five years in a Russian work camp. He is then forced to live on an overcrowded train car for a few weeks in transit to the work camp. After all that, he has to walk over a thousand miles through Siberian snowfall with hundreds of other prisoners to arrive at the camp. After a few months of work, he plans his escape and manages the more than four thousand miles, on foot, to India. So what does homie do after finally achieving freedom? He heads back to Poland, enlists in the Air Force, and fights the Nazis in World War 2. How is this guy not considered history's ultimate badass?
I just wish he'd have let someone else tell his story. We learn very little about Rawicz or his companions and as a result, it's hard to look at them as real people instead of just characters in a novel. Rawicz's descriptions of the hardships they endure and the deaths of his friends read like technical manuals. Unless you constantly step back and look at their journey on its unimaginable scale, you never really get the impression that these guys are suffering all that much. I can't help but think how much more popular and acclaimed this book would be if it had been put together by a professional writer.
The end of the story is almost surreal. Characters are killed off in a few sentences and never mentioned again. Rawicz spends a page describing what he was certain was an encounter with abominable snowmen. And then the book ends after the remaining escapees are rescued, with Rawicz describing himself as "suddenly bereft of friends, bereft of everything, as desolate and lonely as a man can be. THE END." Seriously? That's how you end a book about how you conquered the ENTIRE ASIAN CONTINENT by sheer force of will alone? Come on, guy.
Anyway, the book is certainly worth reading because the story itself is mind-blowing in its scale. I just wish it hadn't been autobiographical.
Highlights: The epic story.
Lowlights: The epic failure of the storytelling.