Monday, 5 January 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan/ Vintage

Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
Also available as an audiobook from Audible Studios.
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All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Even Dante Alighieri’s fervent imagination could not have conjured the hell that was the “Line,” the Burma Death Railway built by Allied POWs and Asian slaves during World War II. Military surgeon Dorrigo Evans is our Virgil, leading us through the underworld of cruelty along that The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

This novel was recently awarded the Man Booker Prize. Like the two previous winners (The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton; Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel), the committee favored a work of historical fiction with a complicated structure (though nothing can compare to the kaleidoscopic corkscrews of The Luminaries) and a strong narrative voice, or in the case of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Luminaries, a multiplicity of voices.

The framework of this novel is built around Dorrigo Evans, whom we meet as a child in Tasmania. His intellect lifts him from the wild and desolate island into university and an officer’s station during the war, but no privilege can spare Dorrigo the depravations of the Japanese army.

The narrative moves nimbly between past and present. Dorrigo Evans looks back on his life from the perch of old age, reflecting, “A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.” And it cannot be said that Dorrigo is a happy man. Ironically, he is a legend, a national hero, for having survived the forced labor camps in the Thai-Burma jungle that killed over 90,000 Asian civilian laborers and 13,000 Allied POWs (I have read so many conflicting figures that I hesitate to assign real numbers to the casualties, but these are the most consistent. The scale of horror exceeds the imagination). But even before his military service, Dorrigo holds the world arm’s length. He exudes a cynic’s distrust and reserve. Perhaps it is this essence of distance that allows him to survive the labor camps with his mind intact, but he returns to the world with an almost sociopathic regard for personal relationships. He is a serial philanderer, cheating even on his mistresses. And there is shadowy mention of questionable medical ethics. Flanagan does this amazing thing of taking a cipher and baring his soul, to show us that our heroes are deeply flawed human beings, potentially ruined by the very events that made us venerate them.

Through the decades following the war he felt his spirit sleeping, and though he tried hard to rouse it with the shocks and dangers of consecutive and sometimes concurrent adulteries, outbursts, and acts of pointless compassion and reckless surgery, it did no good.

As the novel enters the war and thrusts us into that fetid jungle, we enter the lives of many in Evans’ troop, these “cobbers” who cling to one another for survival. Rooster MacNeice, Darky Gardiner, Sheephead Morton, Bonox Baker—names and identities so quintessentially Aussie—laconic but good-natured men accustomed to hard labor and few luxuries. What awaits them, and the reader, in the Japanese POW camps is beyond all comprehension.

But we do try to comprehend, don’t we? That is why we read—to understand what it is we cannot imagine on our own. As I read the unspeakable, my inner voice cried, Why? How? How can any man do to another what these Japanese soldiers did to the railway laborers? Dorrigo Evans seeks to understand, too.

At that moment he admired the terrible will of Nakamura—admired it more even than he despaired of the beating of Darky Gardiner—the grim strength, the righteous obedience to codes of honour that allowed no doubt.

But is this explanation enough? This sense of duty, a warrior’s code of honor? There is no reason in war, as Flanagan shows us; there is only what is, and what must be endured.

he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror… the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

In a twist of narrative I wasn’t expecting and was reluctant to give myself over to, Flanagan takes us into the world of Major Nakamura, the camp commander who was responsible for so much of the torture inflicted upon Evans’ men. We are led into the post-war Inferno of Tokyo after surrender, a city in ruins, where Nakamura is hunted as a war criminal. Rather than seeking to elicit sympathy for Nakamura, Flanagan shows what doing evil does to a human being born, as we all are, without a blemish.

I’m just not capable of presenting all the moral voyages a reader will experience along The Narrow Road to the Deep North or articulating the subtle power of this book’s construction and its prose. These are beyond this lay reader's ability.

I’m also not capable of rereading the novel, though I wish I could, simply to learn from Richard Flanagan’s incredible skill. It nearly broke me the first time. Tremendous, tremendous work of literature.

Reviewed by Julie Christine Johnson

An intense reader and creative writer, she lives in Port Townsend, Washington. 

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