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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.67, No.1, 153 ~ 172, 2021
Pierre Boulle: Singapore, Conrad & Spies
Ira Nadel
Analyzing the work of the French novelist Pierre Boulle (1912-1994), this essay examines how fiction translates pain, trauma and war into dramatic action borrowing themes and styles from Conrad. Boulle shows how the art of narrative and fiction provides an individual with a form of adjustment by writing through the trauma. His engagement with espionage, war and hardship led to a literature of survival through which identity emerges. Boulle went to Malaya in 1936 at age twenty-four to work on a rubber plantation, but joined the Free French Movement in Singapore in 1941 to counter the Japanese who had moved into Indochina and then to Siam (Thailand) and Malaya. Following an aborted mission to the Indochina coast, he returned to Singapore to become an explosives and paramilitary expert who undertook a daring but ultimately unsuccessful operation to infiltrate French Indochina, specifically Hanoi. Arrested by a French Major sympathetic to the Vichy government and not the Free French after a harrowing river journey down a tributary of the Mekong to infiltrate present day Vietnam, Boulle spent two years and four months in a Japanese prison camp, not unlike the one he describes in his international bestseller, The Bridge on the River Kwai. His autobiography, My Own River Kwai, narrates a great deal of his actual adventures and how he evaluated them in his fiction. Conrad, and to a lesser extent Maugham, were central to the conception of his Southeast Asian fiction. This essay shows the preeminence of Conrad’s Victory (1915), not only the source of the epigram to The Bridge on the River Kwai, but a major influence on Boulle’s work thematically and stylistically. Violence, narrative structure, and ethics are further presented within the shadow of Conrad.
Key Words
Trauma, Spying, Malaya, Conrad, French Resistance
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