Australian writer Richard Flanagan finished his great Australian novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2015) the day his father died. His father had been a survivor of those enslaved to build the Burma Death Railway from Siam all the way to Burma, Thailand over to Myanmar. Japan, in the fascist Axis with Germany and Italy, was using POW’s like Flanagan’s father, as well as Korean and Chinese slave labour to build a “Pharoanic” railway through the jungle. With the most pathetic tools. And gradually, literally beating the life out of them. 100,000 Allied prisoners met their deaths this way. Flanagan is recognizing in this novel all the men there – on all sides, all ranks, all kinds – as well as his own father. It is a rich fraternity – fascinating to those of us, women for example, not in it – well beyond the surface macho world that the novel is also set in.
This was one of the worst parts of that War that proved that worst there is none. Finally we have a view of this particular part of the war to replace the Hollywood images left by the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The novel is a profoundly moving, disturbing, shocking view of this bit of the war that has generally remained hidden as if best forgotten.
And yet the novel is lyrical. Poetic. It is muscular, with no hint of sentimentality. It is powerful. And it is the full stare of honesty. We see through the eyes of an artist who looks at the world we live in without flinching. It is tender. Gentle. It is delicate and intricate. All at once.
The novel is set in the life – exterior and interior – of a man who survives this nightmare, from before the naming of “Post Traumatic Shock Disorder”, this nightmare of years of constant, daily, hourly, traumatic shock in the makeshift “hospital” on the deathly railway project that devoured men from exhaustion, starvation, injury and illness, and all these mixed together. How the hero and anti-hero are the same man, Dorrigo Evans. And how he sold out to to this project, and why, and at what cost, and how it made a lie of him.
The story is also from before the time when it was generally accepted that it is better afterwards to speak of the unspeakable than to bury it. The structure of the work is complex, roaming back and forth in time, from Tasmania to Jerusalem, Siam to Burma, and from the Sydney Opera House Bridge to Tokyo after the firebombing. And throughout is Dorrigo Evans’ love for Amy, Amy who in his mind is Amy, Amante, Amour, and his life without her. His aloneness in life accentuated by his memory of her.
The quality of the prose is haunting. Read this: “There was around him an exhausted emptiness, an impenetrable void cloaked this most famously collegial man, as if he already lived in another place – forever unravelling and refurling a limitless dream or an unceasing nightmare, it was hard to know – from which he would never escape. He was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit. In his dreams he would hear his mother calling to him from the kitchen: Boy, come here, boy. But when he would go inside it was dark and cold, the kitchen was charred beams and ash and smelt of gas, and no one was home.”
And when his wife Ella, taken to smoking French cigarettes, berates him for his adulteries, we read: “How he hated that smoke. He feared he had made her coarse, she who had been anything but. He thought of how the world organizes its affairs so that civilization every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life.” The shifts from one thing to another, like this over those three sentences, never jar. The novel is constructed with such shifts, giving it a strange feeling of being a stream of consciousness novel, although very plain narrative prose. And interspersed with haunting haiku’s. That unified clashing that works so well is to the ultimate credit of this profound novel.
The novel is also about this officer-doctor’s soldiers, one to whom we get close called Darky Gardiner who gets beaten to death before our very eyes, and how we are all guilty. And it is also about the men’s captors, the Japanese officers giving orders while drugged with amphetamines, like Nakamura who we get to know from the inside. Even as afterwards, he uses a crowbar in fire-bombed Tokyo to kill himself or stay alive, avoiding trial as a war criminal.
And about the hero/anti-hero’s brother, Tom to whom he turns when he is older and whose life, curiously ties up the narrative superbly.
The novel won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It is a book that, once you’ve read it, stays with you. It is a whole moral universe, constructed by the author. Almost like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And curiously set in the same space as that, the best of all novels. When I re-read War and Peace a couple of years ago, I realized, it had, more than anything else I’d read, informed my moral universe. I recognized the book, in re-reading it, as if it were a recollection of my own life. And this novel contains that kind of power.