I was born in Britain in the mid-nineties; as such, I am fortunate enough to know very little of war and her brutish seams. Instead, I see explosions on television and sleep safely in my bed with only the rumbling Northern Line to stir me. And All the Trumpets by Donald Smith is enlightening, troubling and overwhelmingly humbling. The autobiography recounts Smith’s years as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is a story of almost incomprehensible suffering; daily torture, rampant disease and total psychological discombobulation come to define Smith’s lived experience in a story too far-fetched for fiction.
The text begins with Smith’s 18th Division surrounded in Singapore. The year is 1942 and the War -although they do not know it- is far from over. There is a palpable air of relief when capture saves the military men from death; however, it does not take long for the reader to question whether the latter may have been preferable. Hard-labour, beatings and negligible medical supplies create a cocoon of horror as Smith is transported around Japan at the whims of a horrific regime. His orientalist distaste for the Japanese is certainly of its time and will grate with contemporary readers; however, the racist overtones of this book must necessarily be seen in the light of Smith’s experiences.
It is not all doom and gloom, Smith recounts cricket matches, theatrical productions and the witty British stoicism of a bygone era. Beyond everything there is resilience. The unwavering intention to survive in the face of unimaginable barbarism makes this one of the most astonishing works of non-fiction I have ever read. The fact that the book has been written at all somewhat gives the ending away; our hero does indeed survive. This is not a spoiler as Smith’s survival remains a seeming impossibility until the end.
My generation are quick to complain, and I include myself in that. I do not apologise for this; it is difficult to be young today. However, Smith’s book is a stark reminder of how bad things can get, how dark and twisted the human mind can become, but above all, it is a reminder of our inner strength and a call to resilience in challenging times.
And All the Trumpets by Donald Smith is published by Panther, pp. 221. Unfortunately, this book is out of print but a secondhand bookseller should be able to help you.