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Last year’s Booker prize-winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is extraordinarily ambitious. It is perhaps too ambitious, although ambition is not a sin in my book. There are moments of great beauty but also moments of great bathos. The opening line, “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?”, is one of the latter. What does this mean? Is it to do with creation? Is it to do with an Australian upbringing? Is “like entering the sea and returning to the beach” an Aussie idea of epiphany, taking place on a beach and bearing some deep significance?
Starting with his old age, five stages in the life and loves of the main character, Dorrigo Evans, are interwoven. He is married to Ella, but when his regiment is shipped out he is deep in adultery with Amy, the lovely wife of a hotel keeper. Even describing this clapped-out hotel, Flanagan is reluctant to take his foot off the pedal; the air is on some mission of its own: “Dying air dozed in the King of Cornwall’s corridors. There was a weariness to the dim light.” There is a lot of this kind of thing.
The central event of the novel is an extended atrocity on the Burma death railway as it is being constructed by hundreds of thousands of slaves, including 13,000 Australians. Dorrigo Evans, as a colonel and a surgeon, is the acknowledged leader of the Australian prisoners after the fall of Singapore.
Richard Flanagan’s father was a prisoner in Burma and his son is on record saying that his book is a tribute to him. The cast of Australian good blokes – Rooster MacNiece, Darky Gardiner, Squizzy Taylor, Gyppo Nolan, Jackie Mororski and others – also suggests an everyman theme. The Aussies are forced to work no matter how close to starvation they are and no matter how sick they are. As the whole project becomes less and less viable, so the slaves are beaten for hours on end. It is the emperor’s will that this railway be built, and it is the fault of the wretched slaves that the railway can never be built. They have few tools for the job and wear nothing but filthy “cock rags” and suffer from cholera and any number of parasites. The prisoners have to walk seven miles each way through the jungle before they start work, often day and night. Towards the end some are crawling or dying. But still they are beaten. It is appallingly graphic, and very hard to read, page after page.
Throughout, Dorrigo Evans is relatively privileged as senior officer. He carries out medical procedures without anaesthetic or surgical implements; in one horrifying episode he attempts an amputation with a kitchen saw. At every opportunity he tries to reason with the Japanese, but they live by entirely different rules involving honour and duty, which the wretched prisoners are far too decadent to understand. Flanagan even ventures into the minds of the Japanese officers: one takes drugs, another has a taste for beheading. All have an intense loathing of other races. Flanagan wants nobody to be under any illusions about what went on, and in this he succeeds brilliantly.
Evans is a flawed hero, very attractive to women (Amy loves his dark pelt), conflicted by the guilt of his adultery but also a man who lives through this experience in Burma to become a hero. As he nears the end of his life, revered in Australia, he “felt shame and he felt loss and he felt his life had only ever been shame and loss, it was as though the light was now going, his mother was calling out ‘Boy! Boy!’ But he could not find her, he was returning to hell and it was a hell he could never escape.”
This is a heroic book marred by its determination to demonstrate high seriousness, which often collapses into pop philosophy. But for all its overstriving, this is a book you should read. It is unquestionably a work of astonishing energy and Richard Flanagan is unquestionably highly talented.
- This article was amended on 22 April 2015 to delete a line that does not appear in the book
Source: The Guardian
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