Friday, April 12, 2013

The Reading List: "The Long Walk"

The Long Walk

The True Story of a Trek to Freedom
by Slavomir Rawicz

It was a hell of a couple of years for Slavomir Rawicz.  After facing the wrong side of the blitzkrieg in the Polish cavalry, he was arrested, tortured, and interrogated by the Soviet NKVD, subjected to a humiliating and Kafkaesque trial for espionage, and shipped by cattle-car to a Siberian labor camp in the depths of winter.

A few months later, the titular long walk begins.  Along with five other men, Rawicz breaks out of the camp and begins walking south through the Siberian winter.  He and his companions just keep walking, and walking, and walking -- around the Baikal district, across Mongolia, through the Gobi Desert, up and across the Tibetan Plateau, and finally over the Himalayas into India.  The journey encompasses thousands of miles over some of the most rugged, isolated, and hostile country in the world, and takes the better part of a year.

It is a gripping tales of human endurance against all odds, and is all the more effective for its simple, understated style and its matter-of-factness.  The sheer stamina and awesome courage of the survivors is a powerful testament to the human spirit, and the kindness with which they are treated by strangers whom they encounter upon the way, from people who can not understand them and know nothing of them except that they have walked a long, long way and are obviously very hungry, is a touching reaffirmation of our shared humanity.

This all makes it a damn shame that Rawicz's long walk almost certainly never happened.

Some of the problematic bits are pretty obvious.  For instance: Rawicz is pretty eloquent about how much suffering is involved in walking twenty miles a day across the Gobi Dessert, in summer, for twelve days, without any food or water.  Wait, what?  That's about ten days more then anyone could possibly hope to endure under such conditions -- it is simply not a possible thing -- so the description loses considerable punch.  Oh, and did you notice that bit about walking "over the Himalayas into India"?  Here again, Rawicz's account of deep cold, relentless terrain, and oxygen deprivation makes for a gripping read, but is not especially believable as something that a human could realistically expect to survive without specialized equipment, training, and supplies.  The part where the group  bumps into a pair of yeti is kind of a giveaway, too.

Well, fine.  Maybe the ghostwriter got the details wrong.  Maybe there was a canteen and some water holes that were left out in the Gobi section to make the story more thrilling.  Maybe the group had some help getting over the Himalayas, and Rawicz couldn't bear to end his tale on an anticlimax -- "the long walk from Siberia to Lhasa, from where we caught a flight to Dehli."

But once you start to see improbabilities turning into impossibilities, it makes you wonder about some of the other improbabilities.  For instance, a human body can go quite a while without food, but can it go as long without food, so often, while tearing up so much terrain, as Rawicz cumulatively claims?  Or earlier: in his pre-trial imprisonment, Rawicz says he was kept in a kind of prison cell called the kishka.  It is:
a chimney-like cell into which one stepped down about a foot below the level of the corridor outside.  Inside a man could stand and no more.  The walls pressed round like a stone coffin....  The door was only opened for a prisoner to be marched to an appointment....  We excreted standing up and stood in our own filth.  The kishka was never cleaned.
Sure, such a cell is well within the possibilities of human cruelty.  But how long could even an exceptionally strong, healthy, and lucky person expect to remain alive in such a room, let alone with feet healthy enough to sustain serious walking afterwards in life?  Rawicz claims he lasted six months, which is about double what I would have predicted as the uppermost conceivable limit.

Speaking of human cruelty, it is remarkable how little of it is encountered during the long walk.  Tibet and Mongolia -- a Mongolia oddly long on farming villages and Chinese fishermen but surprisingly short on herders and horsemen, I might add -- are just brimming with kind, good-natured folk eager to share their food with a pack of ragged, lice-ridden, unshaven strangers passing on the road.  Oh, which brings up the question of why, during a year tormented by lice, do the men of the story never once make any attempt to shave or cut their hair?

With doubt in my heart already, I was not completely surprised when a Googling of kishka revealed only direct and indirect references to Rawicz's account.  Digging a little further, I found that the account has inspired deep skepticism since it was first published -- no one, for instance, has ever quite bought those yeti.  More recently, a BBC reporter in 2006 found documents suggesting that Rawicz was released from a Siberian prison in a 1942 amnesty and directly rejoined the Polish army, which is no one's idea of a fun vacation, but a very, very different history than that described in The Long Walk.  There are odd subsequent claims as well that the long walk really did happen, but that it was somebody else who did the walking, and Rawicz stole that guy's story. It starts to get a little "meta" at this point.

As with so many things in the past, the events of The Long Walk have passed the point where they can be verified or even meaningfully disproven.  Rawicz's children claim that their father was a rational man who sincerely believed "the essential truth" of what he had written.  Much as I'd like to join them in this belief -- for an epic of survival is always an encouraging thing -- I deeply suspect that Rawicz fooled the world so well -- perhaps by embellishment, or perhaps by wholesale invention -- that in the end he fooled himself.  Or maybe he fooled himself so well, that in the end he fooled the world.  But he never walked across the Gobi Desert for twelve days without water, that much is certain.

Prognosis: It is a good read, but its veracity is so thoroughly compromised for you, due to having read my little write-up, that it may not really be worth the reading.  Recommended for people who enjoy poking holes in problematic texts, or finding larger truths among smaller fictions.

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