When the Jungle is Silent by James Boschert
“To the British, Australian, New Zealand and Gurkha soldiers, sailors and airman, some of whom died in the service of their countries, who went into the jungle to confront an enemy of far greater numbers and faced him down.
In particular this book is dedicated to the extraordinary men of the Special Air Service who give new meaning to the words dedication, courage and determination. Their skill at survival was legend in a jungle that, while itself neutral, harbored an enemy that was cruel and unmerciful to its victims.”
In the 1960s, when the world’s attention was focused on Vietnam, another war, stemming from the creation of Malaysia and given far less attention, was in progress as the British army sought to end Indonesian incursions into the Malay jungles of Borneo. Known as the Konfrontasi, or Confrontation, the war played out mainly along the border between Indonesia and eastern Malaysia in a theater with few roads and a great deal of wild land.
Now, James Boschert, author of the magnificent Force 12 in German Bight, writes of the Borneo Confrontation utilizing not only solid research, but also personal experience. While the assault on Sapit in When the Jungle is Silent is fictionalized, Boschert draws from personal understanding and relationships to write the story of Jason, a young Welsh light infantry soldier whose unit, at the outset, is undergoing more rigorous training than they are perhaps used to.
To Jason and the other lads in the Pioneer section, who were also called Riflemen, although they rarely did front-end work, [jungle exercises were] an endless waste of time.
“Bloody ‘ell,” grumbled Andy. “I need a lie-in, not more of this bullshit!”
Jason nodded. He could not see much benefit for himself doing this kind of thing. “The Company Riflemen are the ones supposed to go out an’ get manky and sweaty. They can play at being soldiers for fuck’s sake! Our job is bein’ Pioneers! That means to support and … well, encourage them’s to be good soldiers!”
Soon after Jason returns to Penang, where he is stationed, living a somewhat (and relatively) carefree life on the island with Megan, an American Peace Corps volunteer he meets via The Moon and Sixpence. Boschert’s depiction of the pair’s growing involvement, while not the largest part of the story, nevertheless plays a vital role in that it is a crucial part of Jason’s growth and presents a view to what it might be like, while on a tour of duty, to be part of a relationship separate from the military.
While still in the novel’s first third, Boschert introduces Major Johnson, whose story runs parallel to that of Jason, placing them both on a trajectory more likely than not to end badly. Johnson, in charge and responsible for making a decision regarding a situation in which there are no good options, must answer for the terrible consequences, and at one point “had no doubt that he was flying towards his court martial[.]” Especially in this segment, the author’s dialogue is so direct that it reflects the incredulousness Johnson and other characters must feel, the slowly dawning understanding of what they are up against. As a technique, the effect is brilliant, and an unbelieving review of certain passages brings the realization that as readers, we have been drawn solidly into the story. Along with the soldiers, we scan the carnage, the remains, read the reports, trying to make ourselves imagine that it really didn’t happen.
As Jason makes his way to the jungle following the attack on his fort, he has no such luxury. To say time is of the essence is an understatement, and to that end Boschert utilizes verbiage that tells all we want to know—and more—about being on the run in the jungle. Pithy and straightforward, the author’s prose wastes no words—Jason simply doesn’t have that kind of time—but from here on out, they contain images written as prose, impressions so sharp they light up the movie reels in our minds as we cannot help but urge him on: mudding his face, cleaning his gun, keeping watch for every leaf or blade of grass that might be an Indonesian soldier. The tension eases and flares, and is so unpredictable readers find they are so intent on keeping watch that every blade does become an Indonesian, even when it isn’t.
Through the novel Jason is written as a sympathetic character: likeable in his ordinariness, despite his sometimes-too-cavalier attitude toward soldiering, or perhaps because of it, many readers could relate. We recall his own earlier memories, of seeing no future on a Welsh farm, of his father giving him a hard time for spending all his spare money on books. Now the larger and smaller question of How did I end up here? results in a wave of emotion as
[s]elf-pity overtook him and tears began to course down his sweating face. He wanted to howl and cry out, but a sense of self-preservation was still there. He buried his head in his arms and sobbed quietly. Where was he? No compass and no food. The Indons would surely find him and kill him—or perhaps worse, take him prisoner. The barracks rumor of what they did to prisoners was foremost in his mind.
As Jason recoils from thoughts of Megan, and engages in one task at a time, Boschert takes us through the initial shock of landing in the jungle with very little ammunition (200 rounds) and two chocolate bars, and gives us a sense of progress, a way forward. Each task eases a little bit of the next burden in the jungle that even when silent, seems to carry some sort of life. As Jason monitors his surroundings, the jungle too “seem[s] to be holding its breath and listening.”
In alternate chapters we see Major Johnson and Jason on different paths, though slowly coming closer to one another, even though neither knows it. The novel is paced smoothly and quickly, and the story is its own “teasing it out”—Boschert need add no extraneous storyline to keep us on the edge of our seats, skillfully providing us with answers, though often ones that trigger a host of new questions. And, as Jason comes face to face with others in the jungle, he must draw strength from deep within to navigate an escape.
Like Jason, all of Jungle’s other characters are drawn imperfectly: we have no swaggering heroes here. They do not inhabit a formula of “imperfect person performs great act” either—these are flawed human beings who sometimes make poor choices, leading to disastrous results, or hilarious. Boschert shows them to us in their gallantry, bravery, in their stink, drunkenness, foolishness, for some their last horrible moments, others, in varying ways, fighting for the future, even amongst fear and degradation. The battle scenes are riveting and Boschert’s descriptive prose is such that even those unfamiliar with theater terminology can follow events without being bogged down.
Written and drawn out—I feel compelled to use this visual descriptor because down to every illusory plant and human appearance, the words rise off the page to be seen as clearly as if Boschert had indeed drawn or shown actual pictures—written and drawn by someone who himself patrolled this very terrain, When the Jungle is Silent will prove challenging to separate from, as readers will want to see Jason and Johnson through to the very end, no matter the outcome.
About the author …
James Boschert’s unique biography has provided him with an in-depth knowledge of his novels’ subjects. He grew up in the colony of Malaya in the early fifties during the turmoil of a Chinese Communist insurgency. He joined the British Army at fifteen, and from eighteen to twenty-two fought in the jungle wars in Borneo and Malaysia. Afterwards, Boschert lived in the Middle East, serving in countries such as Oman, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Iran where he worked with the Shah Pahlavi’s army. When the 1978 revolution overturned the Shah, Boschert negotiated a perilous escape from Iran, returning safely to the United Kingdom.
As a civilian, Boschert has worked as an engineer on a tanker in the North Sea and as optical engineer involved in the development of laser telescopes at the National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore, California.
James Boschert is the author of the popular Talon Series. Set in twelfth-century Palestine, Talon’s adventures include: Assassins of Alamut; Knight Assassin; Assassination in Al-Qahirah; Greek Fire; and A Falcon Flies. Boschert has also written When the Jungle is Silent, a novel about the 1960s jungle wars in Malaysia.
The reviewer received a gratis copy of When the Jungle is Silent in exchange for an honest review.