Just when Richard Flanagan (born 1961) was considering working in the mines of far north Australia to support himself, his wife and three daughters, he ended up winning one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes and, within only a week, saw his sales rise to a whopping £140,000. Prior to receiving the Booker for his 2014 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the author, who lives on Bruny Island just off the southeastern coast of Tasmania, was already regarded by many as the finest Australian writer of his generation. But five highly acclaimed novels, several journalistic pieces and noteworthy screenwriting credits (he collaborated with the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann for the 2008 Nicole Kidman- and Hugh Jackman-starrer Australia) had not made him immune to the economic vagaries of the writerly life. With award in hand, he admitted that he had been seriously short of money. That it had been “very hard” for him. The Narrow Road to the Deep North took a good twelve years and five drafts – the soft copies of which Flanagan had deleted from his hard drive and the hard copies of which he had set on fire.
The book is dedicated to and inspired by the experiences of “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)” or Arch Flanagan, Richard Flanagan’s father, a survivor of the “Death Railway” or “Burma-Siam Railway” built by the Japanese empire in 1943 using forced labour. Arch Flanagan published a memoir of his own called The Line in 2005, co-written with another son of his, Martin. He died the day The Narrow Road to the Deep North was finished.
I was attracted to the novel for two reasons. One, I had watched the British filmmaker David Lean’s excellent but not wholly realistic 1958 World War II epic The Bridge on the River Kwai (based on a 1952 novel of the same name by the French writer Pierre Boulle), which semi-fictionally depicted the plight of Allied POWs during the construction of the 415 km Railway. Secondly, and more importantly, I had visited the main POW cemetery of the victims located in the town of Kanchanaburi, Thailand and seen a portion of the notorious tracks myself.
The title of the novel is derived from a travel diary written by Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan (which ran from 1603 to 1868). Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, executed in the form of a haibun (prose + haiku poetry), is one of the chief works of classical Japanese literature and is considered a definitive exposition of the Japanese spirit. You can read more about it here.
In Flanagan’s masterful tale, Bashō and other haiku poets…Issa, Buson…as well as a few Western writers of antiquity and the Victorian era all converge to give structure and substance to the life of protagonist Dorrigo Evans, a boy hailing from Tasmania, who, at age 77 in present-day Australia, is a celebrated war hero – the subject of plays and documentaries. Highly sought-after, married with children and quite a philanderer, he is also a lonely and empty man. Forever haunted by a love affair he had with his uncle Keith Mulvaney’s much younger barmaid wife Amy before leaving for Siam to work as a surgeon on the Death Railway in the 1940s. Amy – with ferocious eyes like the blue of a gas flame – comes from an impoverished background and marries the “boring but kind” Keith for the sake of security. An audacious girl who goes around wearing a big, bright red camellia in her hair, she is accorded “a certain freedom to come and go as she wishes” by her husband in deference to the twenty-seven-year age difference between them. Her flirtatious encounters with men are mostly casual and harmless until she meets that “tall young doctor” in an Adelaide bookshop. Over time, as their illicit but sincere relationship is made public, Dorrigo and Amy fall prey to lies and conspiracies and are kept innocent of the truth of each other’s existence.
This personal story is ingrained within the larger historical canvas of the Second World War and the reader finds scenes of romantic passion interwoven with accounts of great torture and deprivation. In the Japanese POW camp where Dorrigo is posted, a boiled duck egg and a condensed can of milk are rare luxuries. The air constantly smells of excrement. Men perpetually suffer from diseases and are so depleted of energy and desire, that an erection is a miraculous accomplishment. But in the middle of immense wants, there is fraternity and friendship…some relief.
This is not a tale you must turn to if you are looking for moral inspiration or heroism. Every character here is broken and confused and unfulfilled. There are no clear delineations between virtue and vice. Still, every character of this book is, as Indian publisher David Davidar has noted, “brilliantly nuanced – even the most brutal Japanese guard or officer”. And that is wherein all its appeal lies. What is remarkable about Flanagan’s writing is his detail and control of language. He describes emotions both simple and complex, pleasant and unpleasant with accuracy and honesty. Combines sentences short and long to produce prose that is almost seamless and symphonic.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not an easy book. And it does not have to be. Great art is meant to challenge you out of your comfort zone and selfish preoccupations, introduce you to vistas you are not familiar with. Great art, as the Irish writer Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) observed in her philosophical text The Sovereignty of Good (1967), “is not a diversion or a side issue, it is the most educational of all human activities…[it] gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling when we meet with them elsewhere.” So is Richard Flanagan’s novel – a great work of art that is not a temporary and superficially pretty distraction from reality but a deep and enduring immersion into it.
These are a few excerpts that I found particularly thought-provoking. I appreciated how the text, from time to time, waxes philosophical without turning sentimental.
- The sky was always dirty and it was always moving, scurrying away, or so it seemed to him [Dorrigo Evans], to some better place where men didn’t die for no reason, where life answered to something beyond chance.
- At such times he [Dorrigo Evans] had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.
- For Amy, love was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe.
- For an instant he thought he [Dorrigo Evans] grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For 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.
Since I have a background in religion and philosophy, this question is of perennial interest to me. Is existence fundamentally violent or peaceful? Are human beings essentially kind or cruel? If you are of a Judeo-Christian frame of mind you are likely to believe that peace is the first and final word and violence an interruption. I think both propositions – existence/humans as ‘fundamentally violent’ and ‘fundamentally peaceful’ – are dogmas or articles of faith. People will adhere to one or the other on the basis of their personal, individual experiences and observations of life. Excessive argumentation is not of much use here. Those who have witnessed much terror and nastiness will, understandably, find it hard to digest the idea of ‘existence/humans as fundamentally peaceful’. But then by believing in the other extreme people rob themselves of the authority of questioning and criticising the activities of tyrants and murderers. It is safer, therefore, to not espouse and proclaim that idea – and instead, just say that perhaps humans are essentially pliable (if not essentially gracious) and existence, at heart, is mutable (if not, at heart, tranquil).
- His neck was dirty, grey, like dirt you piss on. But once I [Colonel Kota, a Japanese officer] had cut it open the colours were so vivid, so alive – the red of his blood, the white of his bone, the pink of his flesh, the yellow of that fat. Life! Those colours were life itself…And that’s all I want of people, their necks, that blow, this life, those colours, the red, the white, the yellow.
These disturbing lines seem to have come straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. How can such an evil figure possess such a refined poetic sensibility? I’m reminded of an extract from the book The Beauty of the Infinite (2003) written by the American Eastern Orthodox theologian and cultural commentator David Bentley Hart. According to Hart, Beauty is the most ubiquitous property of Being, that is to say, in its expanse and reach it outdoes Goodness and Truth. A loss of logic and ethic may not necessary lead to a loss of aesthetic. Limited wisdom and/or limited compassion can exist with a profusion of charm and splendor – it is just Beauty’s natural trait to be generous. I want to end with Hart’s insightful thoughts on this matter:
There is an unsettling prodigality about the beautiful, something wanton about the way it lavishes itself upon even the most atrocious of settings, its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable of circumstances bearable: a village ravished by pestilence may lie in the shadow of a magnificent mountain’s ridge; the marmorean repose of a child lately dead of meningitis might present a strikingly piquant tableau; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered; Nazi commandants occasionally fell asleep to the strains of Bach, performed by ensembles of Jewish inmates; and no doubt the death camps were routinely suffused with the delicate hues of a twilit sky. Beauty seems to promise a reconciliation beyond the contradictions of the moment, one that perhaps places time’s tragedies within a broader perspective of harmony and meaning, a balance between light and darkness; beauty appears to absolve being of its violences.
To learn more about Flanagan and his novel, check out this video from the Wheeler Centre, a literary organisation in Melbourne.
Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (2012) by Max Hastings
The Great War and Modern Memory (2013) by Paul Fussell