The novel is the story of a man tested to the limits as a POW on the Burma railway, and although I have read The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop and A Doctor’s War by Rowley Richards, nothing could have prepared me for the visceral experience of some of the scenes in Flanagan’s novel. There were times when I just had to put it down and read a bit of dear old Balzac or some children’s novels for school until I could face continuing.
Thoughtful haiku* interspersed throughout the book seems incongruous until it becomes apparent that the poetry represents the duality of the Japanese tormentors. It’s almost as if the author could not bring himself to show these characters as capable of human goodness in any other way. (Flanagan’s own father was a Japanese POW, the book’s dedication names him as POW no 335). Just as the central character Dorrigo and his men on The Line represent human frailty as well as heroism and selflessness, the Japanese characters are also depicted as complex beings; their brutal behaviour is shown to be the product of Japanese military training (which is consistent which what I’ve read in Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M Norman). The narrative shifts in time, place and perspective to show that these characters are not sadists in the sense of taking pleasure in inflicting pain; they are more hidebound by their beliefs about obedience to a chain of command that leads to the god-like Emperor. Like Dorringo they yearn for an innocent past that is gone forever, and like him they never adjust to everyday life afterwards. But Flanagan does not shrink from depicting their post-war refusal to accept responsibility for their war crimes and there are a couple of post-war scenes that depict violence that had nothing to do with Imperial demands.
Dorrigo is a magnificent character. In civilian life before and after the war, and during the pivotal years of his life on The Line, he is torn between desire and duty. His passion for Amy vies with his duty to Ella; he struggles to reconcile his role in meeting the demands of the Japanese for slave labour with his role as a doctor in the men’s survival. Post-war he becomes the public face of the atrocity and its aftermath yet paradoxically he yearns for relief from the boredom of his dull marriage and everyday life. Through him we learn the fate of some of the survivors, and we see examples of seemingly inexplicable behaviour from men who were told to go home and forget about it. This is a meticulously crafted book, as you can see from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week.
There will be an avalanche of books about war this year, the anniversary of the start of ‘The War to End all Wars’ in 1914. But by tracing the POW experience from different angles The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives contribute to a richer understanding of defeat. The Japanese treated their POWS as slave labour to build a symbol but their captives were ennobled by it; the Australians at Cowra treated their Japanese POWS well, and their captives felt shamed by it.
Update: John Boland’s review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante is superb.
Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Publisher: Knopf, 2013
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh
Stock seems to be scarce at Booko but but you can pre-order the reprint.
Fishpond: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (where they do have stocks of the audiobook The Narrow Road To The Deep North, 4 left on the day I looked)