I love generosity of spirit, the ability to rise above terrible things to see the humanity that lies beneath. Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize shortlisted The narrow road to the deep north is, without being sentimental or glossing over the horror, a generous book – and this is why I expect it will be one of those books I’ll remember long into the future.
I know I’m late reading it – but this is because I’ve been saving it until my reading group did it, which was earlier this week. Consequently, I spent the last few days of September engrossed in the life of Dorrigo Evans, war-hero, lover of poetry (and of too many women), and, most significantly, POW from the Thai-Burma Railway. It’s one hell of a tale … and not exactly what I expected.
On the surface, Dorrigo had a successful life. He survived the POW camp for one thing, was highly regarded in his career, became a war-hero celebrity due to a documentary (loved this!), and had a long-lasting marriage with three children. But, this is not the full story. Chapter 2 of Book 1, commences:
A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or made it up. Made up, mixed up and broken down. Relentlessly broken down.
This sounds like it could be PTSD, but it’s not. PTSD is important, of course, but Flanagan is interested in broader issues. In many ways the book feels like a big 19th century novel – it has lots of characters, spans a long time-frame, doesn’t shy from coincidences, and explores big themes – but in style, it’s very contemporary, with frequent shifts in time and place, and multiple third-person subjective points of view. It requires concentration to get all the connections, and would benefit from a second reading. Just the sort of book I enjoy getting my teeth into.
I said in my opening paragraph that the book wasn’t exactly what I expected. That’s because I was expecting more war, and perhaps more anger, than I found. There is war, of course, much of it gruesome, as fits the “truth” of that situation, but the main thread is a love story, accompanied by meditations on ideas like truth, goodness and manhood. I can’t possibly discuss all these or we’ll be here forever, so I’m just going to focus on a couple.
“to somehow be more truthful as a human being” (Nakamura)
One of the novel’s strengths is the balance Flanagan strikes between brutality and humanity. He does this partly by paralleling the life of Dorrigo, the commanding officer of the POWs, with Nakamura, the commanding Japanese officer. Nakamura is the enemy but isn’t vilified as you’d expect. Flanagan shows Nakamura to be brutal towards prisoners but we also get inside his head. We learn that he is not comfortable in his own skin – he is, in fact, addicted to shabu (speed) – and that he needs his superiors’ arguments to convince himself of the right of what he is doing. That he is able to do so – that is, to buy completely into the notion of the “Japanese spirit”, into the Emperor’s goals of “The World Under One Roof” – is believable. What soldiers don’t buy into their nation’s “mythology” (whatever it is based on)?
Flanagan follows Nakamura post-war until his death, as he endeavours to rebuild his life – firstly under a false identity to escape being tried as a war-criminal, and later as himself, married and a father. He struggles to define himself – and is surprised to feel himself transformed into “a good man”. A decade or so after the war, his memory of his brutality fades:
time … allowed his memory instead to nurture stories of goodness and extenuating circumstance.
However, when he is dying, he finds it increasingly difficult to hold onto “his idea of his own goodness”. Comparing this goodness with that of his wife, it comes “close to collapsing altogether”. He searches for the “good things in his life — separate of the Emperor’s will, of orders and authority” but finds they are few when compared with his memory of “skeletal creatures crawling through the mud”. His death poem, concluding with “clear is my heart”, is tinged with irony, but reflects his desire “to conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man”.
By contrast, Dorrigo believes himself not to be a good man, to be “entirely bogus”. He marries a woman he doesn’t love, believing his true love to be dead:
For the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty. The guiltier he felt about his failure first as a husband and later as a father, the more desperately he tried to do only what was good in his public life. And what was good, what was duty, what was ever that most convenient escape that was conveniently inescapable, was what other people expected.
And yet, he’s a “war hero” and validly so. At one point on the Railway, when they are all starving, he refuses to eat some steak. Rather, he sends it back to the men, having “found himself the leader of a thousand men* who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not”. This is not false modesty – the men did bring out his best – and yet this modesty is not completely valid either because Dorrigo did have good in him. He was a man prepared to take action for others, at risk to himself. In his last comatose days, he feels that his life had “only ever been shame and loss”, but his final words are words of action, alluding, self-deprecatingly perhaps, to Don Quixote’s windmill but also reminding us of the last line of the poem that defined him, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” – “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
“a poem is not a law” (Bonox Baker)
Two other notions run through the novel – and I’ve already alluded to them both – the love of literature, particularly poetry, and the workings of memory. One scene in particular brings these ideas together. It concerns the funeral pyre for some cholera victims, who include the artist Rabbit Hendricks. When cholera victims are burnt, their personal belongings must also be burnt, but Bonox Baker wants to save Rabbit’s sketchbook because:
it’s a record … So people in the future would, well, know. Remember, that’s what Rabbit wanted. That people will remember what happened here. To us.
Dorrigo quotes from Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, arguing that everything is forgotten in the end, that it’s better to just live. Bonox disagrees, telling Dorrigo that
A poem is not a law. It’s not fate Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
For Dorrigo, for Nakamura and for his commanding officer, Colonel Kota, poetry is essential in some way to their lives. Dorrigo, who lived at a time “when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry” eventually finds himself “living in the shadow of a single poem”, while for Nakamura poetry emulates “the Japanese spirit” by which he tries to justify or explain his actions.
Bonox, though, is interested in something else. He continues to argue with Dorrigo about the sketchbook:
Memory is the true justice, sir.
Or, the creator of new horrors. Memory’s only like justice, Bonox, because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.
And so we come to one of the paradoxes that Flanagan exposes in the book – individual memory versus the memory industry. Dorrigo is outed as a war hero through a documentary, which makes him uncomfortable, and yet “to deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died”. The memory industry, however, too often ignores the “truth” of the experience in preference for the facts, as bugle-player Jimmy Bigelow discovers:
His sons corrected his memories more and more. What the hell did they know? Apparently a lot more than him. Historians, journalists, documentary makers, even his own bloody family pointing out errors, inconsistencies, lapses and straight out contradictions in his varying accounts. Who was he meant to be? The Encyclopaedia bloody Britannica? … His words and memories were nothing. Everything was in him. Could they not see that? Could they not just let him be?
Paradoxically, Flanagan is questioning the memory industry while at the same time contributing to it. And it is a powerful contribution. Just goes to show the power of literature!
This is a big messy novel, about the two messiest things humanity confronts – love and war. I love its messiness, its lack of answers, but it sure made it hard to write about. Fortunately, Lisa at ANZLitLovers and John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante have also given it a go.
The narrow road to the deep north
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
* Aussie readers will recognise Flanagan’s reference here to Weary Dunlop.