THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus, 2014)

flanagan2Richard Flanagan’s brilliant Booker prize-winning novel is a big book in every sense.

On one level it is an account of the horrors surrounding the construction of the Burma railway line near the end of the second world war. At the same time, it documents an ill-fated romance between a successful surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, and his Uncle’s young wife, Amy. Yet to describe this book as a historical romance would be well wide of the mark.

The Tasmanian author spent 12 years working on a novel he was clearly born to write. It is dedicated to his father who died the day it was completed.

Flanagan senior was one of the thousands of prisoners of war put to work by brutal Japanese captors on  constructing a railway line between Siam (now Thailand) with Burma, a distance of 415 kilometres. He survived, unlike around 3,000 Australian prisoners and an estimated total of 90,000 who perished. Alternative names for the line like ‘hellfire pass’ and ‘death railway’ speak for themselves.

This subject has previously been dramatized in David Lean’s The Bridge On The River Kwai, and more recently, in The Railway Man but movies are never going to be able to depict the level of human suffering so vividly described by Flanagan.

Inevitably, part of the story centres on how the human spirit is able to overcome such terrible ordeals. Dorrigo Evans, expresses his survival strategy in these terms : “It’s only our faith in illusion that makes life possible……….it’s believing in reality that does us in every time”. There is never any suggestion of finding solace in religion.

After the war, Evans becomes successful and famous but on the flip side he is “a despicable womanizer” with a history of “quixotic philanderings”. He is not an easy person to like but gradually you at least come to understand how his character has been forged by bitter experience.

Richard Flanagan celebrates winning the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Flanagan’s writing style has been accused of being too flowery at times. Female characters like Dorrigo’s wife and his many lovers are thinly drawn and there’s no doubt that his male characters are more convincing.

A thread in the Good Reads reviews mocks the writer’s description of a woman’s nipples as “wondrous” while some lines about being lost in love, e.g.“he could not resist the undertow of her”, are open to parody.

Although there is a certain amount of exaggeration and clumsy abstraction in these descriptions, I think what Flanagan is trying to show is how our remembrances of things past are often closely tied to specific, and highly personal, perceptions. These are in stark contrast to the sensory overload of bodies ravaged by gangrene, starvation, cholera and dysentery which the POWs had to endure.

The author’s original intention was to explore the nature of good versus evil but Flanagan admits that, in this regard, he underestimated the complexity of the undertaking.

Photo of POWs laying track on the Burma Railway taken in 1943

In the novel, the Japanese commanders, Nakamura and Colonel Kota, are cruel and ruthless in their “righteous obedience to codes of honour”. In their determination to carry out the will of the Emperor they show no mercy.

It would have been all too easy to present one-dimensional portrayals of such men as sadistic monsters and to depict the POWs as innocent victims. Such a simplistic interpretation was clouded during his research, however, when Flanagan met with one of the most notorious Japanese real-life commanders (nicknamed ‘the lizard’).Instead of the cold-blooded tyrant he expected to find, he encountered a meek and courteous old man.

The story that Flanagan relates therefore tells not only of grim wartime events but of the lives of the characters on both sides after the war ended.

History and experience teach us that all things must pass. This can be viewed either as a tragedy or a blessing or both. Time erodes bitter memories and some things are best forgotten anyway, While on the run from authorities seeking to bring him to justice for war crimes, Nakamura says “You survive if you forget”.

These themes come to the fore in a beautifully elegiac chapter seen from a present day perspective which includes this passage:

“The line welcomed weeds into the embankments the slaves had carried as dirt and rock in their tankas, it welcomed termites into the fallen bridge timbers the slaves had cut and carried, it welcomed rust over the railway irons the slaves had shouldered in rows, it welcomed rot and ruin”.

Flanagan is by no means making light of the horrors or overlooking the guilt of the perpetrators but is merely observing that ultimately, with the passage of time, memories fade and disappear. This key chapter ends with this telling observation: “Of imperial dreams and dead men all that remained was long grass”.

From this moment on, the perspective of the novel shifts so that the way the past is perceived becomes fundamental to our understanding of the lives and events depicted. We find it in the way each of those accused of war crimes “conceived of his destiny differently and invented his past accordingly” and in the fading memories of an Australian widow who could not recall what her husband looked or sounded like: “she could remember nothing except that for a time, a short time, she had been lonely and cold”.

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō  (1644 – 1694)

This fatalistic perspective helps explain why Flanagan should draw inspiration from the wisdom of Japanese haikus or haibuns (combinations of prose and poetry).

The novel takes its title from the 17th travel journal of Matsuo Bashō (Oku no Hosomichi) while the closing chapter is prefaced by this haiku by Issa :

“In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers”.

Ultimately, Flanagan shows that there is a strange continuum between the brutality of 20th century events and the lyricism of ancient poetry; indelibly tied together by the sobering truth that “all human history is a history of violence”.