The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
Taking its title from one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho, Flanagan’s novel has as its heart one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history, the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II.
In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway, surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.
Book five of six from this year’s Booker challenge – and with only a few days to go until the winner is announced, it looks like, once again, I’ll fail to meet my goal of reading the lot before the announcement. Ah well.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a somewhat rambling tale, moving back and forward in time between Dorrigo’s passionate love affair with his uncle’s wife in the weeks and months before shipping out to war, to his horrific experiences in a Japanese POW camp, to the present day where he is a celebrated war hero with a failing marriage and destructive habits of womanising and drinking. The fragmented nature of the storytelling made it slightly difficult to get into for the first few chapters, but once it settled down I got very drawn into the story.
The strongest sections for me were those set in the POW camp. Dorrigo is an officer, an army surgeon, so as an officer he is not expected by his Japanese guards to take part in the back-breaking work the rest of the men are. He is however responsible for the health of his men – an impossible task, as they are worked far past the point of exhaustion, starved, beaten, and made to live in filthy camps where cholera spreads like wildfire. Dorrigo assumes command when his superior officer dies in the camp, and is left with the thankless job of trying to keep as many of them alive long enough to be worked to death by their captors.
And sometimes people did not die. He refused to stop trying to help them live. He was not a good surgeon, he was not a good doctor; he was not, he believed in his heart, a good man. But he refused to stop trying.
Flanagan does a tremendous job of not only detailing the horror of the camps – which could very easily have turned into a kind of suffering-porn, a trap Flanagan skilfully avoids – but also showing how the men’s humanity survives. The prisoners joke and laugh, set up a black-market trade in stolen food and tools, even sing and put on plays early on in their imprisonment (before they become too ill and exhausted for even that). Flanagan also shows the human side Japanese guards – although perceived as monsters by the Australian prisoners, Flanagan portrays them as victims of the brutal military machine, being driven to complete impossible tasks for the sake of national pride.
The Siam-Burma railway is for a military purpose – but that’s not the larger point. It is that this railway is the great epoch-making construction of our century. Without European machinery, within a time considered extraordinary, we will build what the Europeans said was not possible to build over many years. This railway is the moment when we and our outlook become the new drivers of world progress.
Later on in the book, there are segments detailing the fates of several of the camp guards and officers. Here Flanagan shows understanding, if not forgiveness, of what drove these men to commit the horrors they did – and underscores the fact that most of ultimately executed for war crimes were low-ranking soldiers and officers, scapegoats, while the higher-ranking officers who actually gave the orders largely escaped punishment.
I found particularly poignant a segment detailing the fate of Choi Sang-min, a camp guard who, as a Korean, was considered the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the Japanese army. Considered a monster by the Australian captives, responsible for discipline and dealing out savage beatings for any infringements, leading to the deaths of several men, this section near the end provides a little understanding of his character. Brutalised by the Japanese army, which he joined only for the small pay which he could use to support his family, he doesn’t understand why he is sentenced to die for just beating prisoners, when such beatings were the normal way of things in the Japanese army, and those who ordered the beatings and the deaths are walking free.
I actually found the love story element the least compelling part of the novel. Although I think without it, this book would have been a bit too close to war-porn for my liking, ultimately I found this aspect of the story a little weak. I think possibly that’s because I found the character of Amy, Dorrigo’s great love, so incredibly unlikeable. I think her character was under-written, so she struck me as very shallow and vapid, and as a result I couldn’t really get invested in her story. I also found the ending (which I won’t give away here) a little too neat-and-tidy for my liking.
Overall I did enjoy this, but I think it’s let down by the under-development of the few female characters. It is a strong novel though, and well-deserving of its place on the shortlist, but I don’t think it should win.