The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


It took some time for me to be prepared to read this Man Booker Prize winning book that someone said was the best book that will ever ruin your weekend. I was both slow to pick it up and slow to make my way through the searing parts. First I will say that the book was worth enduring the sections about the Japanese slave labor that built the railroad across Thailand to Burma. I came away filled with admiration for Richard Flanagan.

Dorrigo Evans is shown to be a child fated for success when against all odds, he scrambles to the top of the heap to grab the football. He becomes a doctor and is successful socially; the war comes along and while he is stationed in Adelaide, he has a brief encounter with a young woman that neither is able to forget. Later he finds she is the wife of his uncle and that does not deter them from having an intense affair. At some point he ships out and after he is captured by the Japanese, he becomes the leader of a thousand prisoners of war who are worked to death on the railway. He acts heroically to protect them and heal them. He never regards himself as virtuous or heroic and feels trapped into behaving as he did by the expectations of the prisoners; he considers himself a flawed human. And after the war, his personal life is less than exemplery.

While this is surely his story, that a man heroic in some situations is ordinary or worse in others, another facet of this book was to look at the other side of the coin. As head of the labor camp, the speed-addicted Major Nakamura is dispicable. He believes that whatever he does that helps create the railway is justified because it is for the glory of the Emperor and the spirit of Japan. During a visit by Colonel Kota, an even more horrifying war criminal, the two discuss their shared love of Japanese poetry:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa's haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho's great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

And later:

In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.

After the war he does what he must to avoid exposure as a war criminal and eventually falls in love, marries, and has children to whom he is endlessly kind and loving. His beliefs are shaken when his gentle friend Sato reveals that it was true — not false propaganda — that Japanese doctors carried out horrifying experiments on American patients. Still, he is able to see the necessity of those experiments.

Nakamura felt in the deepest part of his being that he, like the Japanese people, was an honourable, good man falsely accused. A victim, yes — him, Ikuko, his executed comrades, Japan itself. This sentiment explained to him all that had befallen him, even lent a certain grandeur to his miserable life of secrets and evasions, of false identities and growing distance from other people. But he felt excited by Sato's story. A distant prospect of some divine liberation seemed to exist within it.

Both Dorrigo Evans and Tenji Nakamura are in some way trapped into their very different acts; Evans despises the notion of virtue but was impelled by those who needed him to act as he did. Nakamura was trapped by the idea of the Japanese spirit and the Emperor. 

Another facet of the book is Dorrigo and Amy's story of lost love. While he is in service, we learn that there was an explosion in the old hotel where Amy and her husband lived and worked. The message of their intense affair is spelled out in this conversation Dorrigo had with the widow of a fellow prisoner of war when she asked him if he believed in love. As he was thinking of Amy and their time together, she says,

I don't, she said. No, I don't. It's too small a word, don't you think, Mr. Evans? I have a friend in Fern Tree who teaches piano. Very musical, she is. I'm tone-deaf myself. But one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you've thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you….Do you think that's what we mean by love, Mr. Evans? The note that comes back to you. That finds you even when you don't want to be found? That one day you find someone, and everything they are comes back to you in a strange way that hums?

Some 20 years after the war's end, Dorrigo has an eventful few days that bring some remarkable revelations. Without spelling them out clearly, I will say they involve a visit to his much older brother in Sydney where he learns more about a fellow prisoner of war, Darky Gardiner, and a takes a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Shortly after that, he spectacularly rescues his wife and three children from a bush fire.

I have wondered whether this book would be as powerful without the extended section of prisoner of war horror; I think it could well have been. Richard Flanagan's writing is that powerful.

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Knopf, 2014, 352 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public and UVa libraries, as well as through Amazon. 

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