THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH (2015)
Vintage, 416, pages, 978-0804171472
* * * * *
Forget Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and Tolstoy. Just kidding, but in terms of emotional wallop, one could make the case that the three greatest war novels of our time are: Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried; Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See; and Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The last of these is so good that it won the UK's 2014 Man Booker Prize. Man Booker winners are often as questionable as Cannes film prizewinners–Hilary Mantel? Ugh!–but when the Man Booker committee gets it right, it gets it spectacularly right.
Flanagan's sprawling novel takes on nothing less than the five stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and late adulthood), assuming one is lucky enough to make it that far. Its title derives from the 17th century haiku master and travel journalist Basho, who set off from Edo and headed north to inhabit the observation that life is a journey. (Thanks to Smith College's Michael Gorra for his elucidation on Basho.) Flanagan's novel is punctuated with poetry and its various vignettes and musing on life's transitory nature is loosely held together through the character of Dorrigo Evans, whose life stages we observe in flashbacks. His odd name is adopted from an Australian town, which the Tasmanian-born doctor, literature lover, and proclaimed war hero finds infinitely superior to his birth name: Alwyn. It's one of several reinvention attempts, not all of which succeed. Dorrigo's poet of choice is Tennyson, especially Ulysses, who was also a reluctant traveler and Evans decidedly casts himself in a fated, tragic role. Among the haiku he quotes is this one from Issa: "In this world/we walk on the roof of hell/gazing at flowers."
Dorrigo has cause to believe in fate. The heart of the book is about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War Two–one of the thousands of Australians captured in Burma and used by their Japanese captors as slave labor to construct an impossible folly: a railroad through the jungle to connect Burma and Thailand. More than 90,000 POWs perished, but Evans survived. Please set aside all the romanticism of David Lean's 1957 film Bridge over the River Kwai (or of Pierre Boule's 1954 novel). There are no plucky whistling Brits in this novel–just near-naked, starving men being pushed to the limits of human endurance under blazing suns and drenching monsoon rains, often dying in the mud and runny streams of their own excrement. Who survives in such conditions? How does an officer such as Dorrigo choose which sick men to work, and how does he live with his own conscience, even though his peers and the Australian public hail him for having saved more lives than should have been possible? Answer: You don't. Dorrigo dismisses acclaim: "… the more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. He did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause." Nor can Dorrigo forget the war, a tainted love affair, his infidelities, the men he commanded, or the patients he could not save. As Flanagan writes, "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else." Dorrigo was decidedly an unhappy man.
As you surmise, this is also a book about memory. Among its many—dare I say it?—virtues is that we see missteps and horrors through multiple perspectives: Ella, Dorrigo's mistress; a condemned Korean war criminal about to hang and angry that he never got the 50 yen his Japanese superiors promised him; camp commander Nakamara, who escapes capture and lives out his life convinced he acted from "duty" and "honor," and is therefore a "good man"; and camp non-survivors such as Darky Gardner, who concludes that life is "a stacked deck. Life was only about getting the next footstep right."
If the book sounds depressing, so it is in places, especially in gut- wrenchingly lurid camp scenes. Belief systems take it on the chin, but there is also immense beauty in the book. There is, first, stunning prose the likes of which you will read aloud to others after gasping, "Oh my God! Listen to this writing." Moreover, though Dorrigo sees redemption as impossible, others find meaning in small sublime moments rather than big complex systems. One chapter involved several camp survivors breaking the window and freeing fish from a Melbourne fish shop once frequented by a dead comrade. Wracked by remorse, several of the men return to confess to the shop's Greek owner, who tells them simply to sit and be his guest–"You must eat. It's good to eat,"–a prelude to talking about winter, apricots, the man's dead wife, his son who died in the war, fishing, how to cook lamb…. The enormous weight of strangers discovering shared humanity made for a moving literary experiences that made me weep. Make no mistake–this is more than a novel; it is literature. If you're uncertain of the difference, Flanagan's passages will illumine.