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A JOURNEY TO HELL: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

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Vintage: $32.95

I’m thrilled that Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize for this glorious novel, So well-deserved! I was puzzled he didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year, but no doubt this win will redress the balance. I republish my review here.

Richard Flanagan says: “I feel as if I had written all my books in order to write this book”. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has finally surfaced after five years and numerous drafts. It is an intensely personal novel: as a boy, Flanagan absorbed the stories of his father, a former prisoner of war and one of ‘Weary Dunlop’s Thousand’ who constructed the so-called Thai-Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

These reminiscences bled into Flanagan’s very soul. The result is a novel that spans fifty years, covers war and peace, sweeps us up into an extraordinary love story, and examines both the good and evil in humanity.

At 467 pages, this is a mighty book with a big heart and I can honestly say it’s one of the most memorable I have read this year.

The title is taken from the Japanese haiku poet Basho, who is frequently quoted by the Japanese camp leaders, and as in any haiku, offers multi-layers of meaning. Ultimately, we’ll all travel the same narrow road and must pay the ferryman. Along the way, we’re moulded by memory and experience, and by shifting past and present, chapters that take place today with those from the 1940s, Flanagan builds up a picture of a singular man, and an infamous time in history.

Like Weary Dunlop, Dorrigo Evans is a surgeon. A fettler’s son who outgrows but cannot forget his working-class roots, part of the novel examines Dorrigo’s uneasiness with privilege after the war ends. He marries well, and as a war hero, lives a life of quiet celebrity after a TV documentary brings him to the nation’s attention. A regular after-dinner speaker and sought-after Board member, he feels a fraud– “his fame seemed to him a failure of perception on the parts of others.”

Flanagan contrasts Evans today –  womaniser, loner, doubter, revered public figure – with Evans in the POW camps, thrust unwillingly into the role of negotiator and intermediary with the Japanese camp officials because of his status as an officer. One of the most heart-stopping passages in the book is his plea for the sickest men to be allowed to rest, whilst having to choose 100 others – only marginally less ill – for slave labour the next day.  The haggling over numbers becomes increasingly desperate and Dorrigo knows that the men he sends off will probably never return. For Dorrigo, each man is precious, to the Japanese, each is simply a pawn for glorifying the Emperor by building the railway. Their different views of loyalty and honour make for powerful narrative parallels.

The atrocious and inhumane conditions of the camp are recreated in vivid detail, and the men themselves, with their varied backgrounds, are a microcosm of Australia, “bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards.” In protecting them as best he can, Dorrigo becomes the reluctant hero of legend.

This savage account is bookended by a love story, both erotic and tender, as flashbacks reveal how Dorrigo meets and falls in love with Amy, his uncle’s much younger wife. It’s a doomed passion that flowers, fades but never dies over the course of half a century, and Flanagan gives the reader gradual glimpses of the adulterous affair that build, after a carefully-plotted final reveal, to a truly devastating conclusion that turns him into the complex, tortured man we meet at the start of the novel.  However, the women are never as fully realised as the men and even Flanagan’s portrait of Amy appears token at times.

The Narrow Road’s main concerns remain male-focused. What is the nature of suffering and power, are men who commit evil redeemable through subsequent acts of mercy? Flanagan’s camp leader Major Nakamura is a case in point, a man who recites poetry while men are slaughtered, yet who turns over a new leaf after the war, attempting to do good. Flanagan remains non-judgmental. Dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is too simple. Even Dorrigo is deeply flawed. There is no objective history:  it is selective, malleable, twisted even, frequently by the minds of the men who were there. Everyone has to survive and overcome their past as best they can.

The Narrow Road has “prizewinner” and “film-ability” written all over it. It’s a memorable tribute to Flanagan’s father. Novels rarely make me weep – this one did. I cried for the POWs because Flanagan depicts them as fully-fleshed individuals, for the vicariousness of life, its injustices and disappointments. But the beauty of this novel also brought a lump to my throat. Flanagan’s prose is tessellated, honed with a silver knife. Such poetry in such desperation. Such anguish. Such love.

Read it: Because it’s one of the best Australian books published in 2013. No question.