“…the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations, and bends and warps them against their natures, against their judgements, and destroys all before it with a careless fatalism.” Richard Flanagan
Richard Flanagan hit the ball out of the park with his 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is a moving World War 2 epic of Dr. Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon who finds himself the leading commander of Australian POWS in a Japanese war camp in Burma. The prisoners were put to work on clearing jungle to lay railroad tracks for the Burma Death Railroad. This railroad was to supply Japanese soldiers in route to invading India after the US navy cut off their ocean supply lines. Flanagan writes the Japanese “outlined a route for a great railway that was still only a series of limited plans, seemingly impossible orders and grand exhortations on the part of the Japanese High Command. It was a fabled railway that was the issue of desperation and fanaticism, made as much of myth and unreality as it was to be of wood and iron and the thousands of thousands of lives that were to be laid down over the next year to build it.” Over 50,000 POWS died in the process- some say the number is closer to 200,000. Flanagan writes that “the POWS refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line... A journey into hell.”
Flanagan’s father was a POW in one of these Japanese war camps that built the Burma Death Railway. Flanagan said this is not his father’s story, yet he consulted his father about details, such as “What the mud was like, what the smell of a rotting tropical ulcer that had eaten through to the shin bone exactly was. What a tiny ball of sour rice would taste like when you’re starving, what starvation felt like in your belly and your brain. It was those things I talked to him about because I think truth exists in those small but very real physical details.” And the Man Booker Prize committee rewarded Flanagan for his truth. It is these kinds of detail that makes this book absolutely come alive. Flanagan’s 98 year old father passed away the day he finished writing this book. The book’s dedication reads, “For prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)” which references his father’s POW number.
It is an epic about love too. Love of family, love of comrades, love of a woman whom never leaves Dorrigo’s head or heart. Unfortunately this great love is not for his wife Ella who patiently awaits Dorrigo’s return from the war. These men, both the POWs and the Japanese officers in charge of the camps struggle in their heads and their hearts throughout the war and its aftermath. The tension between right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate is palatable throughout this novel. How does one heal and move forward after such a “descent into madness”?
One of the ways Flanagan expertly juxtaposes opposites is through his use of poetry and quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses.” Dorrigo loves Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, and it is quoted throughout the book, including in the scene of Dorrigo’s death. Also Japanese haikus are quoted throughout- beautiful poignant haikus by Issa and Basho. Haikus are one of my favorite poetry styles, and they add so much to this narrative. Basho wrote a Japanese poetic travelogue in 1694 entitled The Narrow Road to the Deep North which Flanagan borrows. Basho travels 1500 miles on foot from Edo/Tokyo to Oku in pursuit of enlightenment and lost values. It is a poetic retelling of this journey which stands as a metaphor of life. Haruo Shirane of Columbia University says, “But it’s a difficult journey that’s the narrow road. It’s not an easy road, and the travelled is not just someone who’s going sightseeing.” Basho, himself says, “As we turn every corner of the narrow road to the deep north, we sometimes stand up unawares to applaud, and we sometimes fall flat to resist the agonizing pains we feel in the depths of our hearts.”
Ponderings: when I ran across Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North I had never heard of it. Before I could even google it, it was referenced in another book I had started reading- and that was a novel about a bookstore in Paris! I knew this was something we needed to be familiar with. Basho’s book is a famous classic in Japanese literature, and now we know.
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