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The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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