Monday, May 22, 2006

The air of freedom

I don't remember where I read this story or when. I only know it was many years ago and that it has stayed with me.

During the Korean War, an American serviceman (a pilot, I think) was captured by the North Koreans or Chinese. They set about breaking him. I don't think violence was used, or if it was, it was not the principle weapon. This was an ideological battle - they were going to convert him to Marxism, or Leninism. They were going to convert him to a set of certainties that put him and his country and culture in the losing corner, and the Workers' Army of North Korea, or China in the winner's. He was going to accept his small part in the inevitable and triumphal march of the proletariat.

It went on for months. They were good. Their English was excellent and their knowledge of history, if partial, was enough to furnish example after example all tending to the same conclusion. He was, of course, alone and without any other relationship except for that with his captors. He began to weaken. And one day, he weakened enough that they announced they would reward him. He could make a request. He did. He asked for a book. In English.

A few hours later they threw the book into his cell. It was the only one they could find, they said. He leapt on it; opened it and read the title. Treasure Island. And from the moment he started reading, they had lost the battle.

All I remember of his reconstruction of the event is that he smelt the air of freedom among those pages, and that it made him impregnable.

I remembered this story reading today's Daily Telegraph. Antony Sher has a piece in which his memories of his mother's hospitalisation colour those of a ceremony at which Sonny Venkathrathnam presented a copy of Shakespeare's complete works that, in the early seventies, had been smuggled into the Robben Island prison in the guise of a Hindu prayer book. Only religious books were allowed, and so this one did the rounds of the cells. Many prisoners marked, signed and dated a passage. Nelson Mandela bracketed this one (and dated it 16.12.79):

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
I would like to link to the article by Antony Sher, but it is not available (at least for now).

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