The Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the North is structured around the life of its reluctant hero, surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Dorrigo conducts a love affair with his uncle’s young wife which is interrupted by the onset of the Second World War. He then finds himself in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Here, he fights to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings. When the war is over, the novel follows the lives of the men in the POW camp, both the lives of those in command and the lives of their prisoners.
The novel explores the realities and horrors of the war and its aftermath. It shows what a disruption war is to life and to love. It investigates the nature of imperialism and its strange inhumanity, the character of the hero who emerges through suffering. The novel also investigates the relationship between nationalism, war and a type of nationalistic reading which perpetrates the myths of imperialism and constructs identities. There is also a reflection on the role of memory and remembrance, a poststructuralist stance which foregrounds the status of the work as itself a historical novel.
Richard Flanagan’s portrayal of the brutalities and absurd ideologies of Imperialism is unflinching. By following the suffering of the prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway, he shows what monsters ideology can make of men: “the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations, and bends and warps them against their natures, against their judgements, and destroys all before it with a careless fatalism.” In the jungle, a wild space far away from what we understand as civilisation, Flanagan shows the horrors of what men are capable of when they submit themselves fully to the authority of an emperor. Flanagan’s novel compares with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which also showed how the colonial powers beat out their project on the backs of the colonized.
Flanagan is also unflinching in his portrayal of the horrors of war. For example, he shows us the sorry scene where the sick Darky Gardiner is brutally and unjustly beaten for an offence he has not even committed for a number of hours. He shows how the body of the prisoner of war deteriorates when he is put into conditions of malnutrition and filth. The horrific image of Jack Rainbow’s leg amputation particularly sticks in the mind. His leg is amputated for not just the first or the second, but the third time by Dorrigo and Flanagan does not shy away from providing his reader with all the brutal details. Other horrific details stay in the mind. When the men smell corpses burning, their mouths water because they are so hungry and tantalised by the smell of roasting meat. On one absurd occasion, the men celebrate Tiny Middleton’s sleeping erection. Why? Because malnutrition and endless slave labour has deprived them of libido to such an extent that they fear they will never be able to get it up again.
Dorrigo Evans, the reluctant hero of the novel, is a most interesting character because his worldview, I found, was not much different to my own in many respects. For example:
“DORRIGO EVANS HATED virtue, hated virtue being admired, hated people who pretended he had virtue or pretended to virtue themselves. And 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.”
“He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life. And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private life. And the more in that private life they break with civilisation, the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel. But it is not so. You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt.”
And, not least:
“He admired reality, as a doctor, he preached it and tried to practise it. In truth, he doubted its existence. To have been part of a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king led him to understand unreality as the greatest force in life.”
Similarly, Dorrigo is a voracious reader, especially of poetry, although we also find him reading Joyce’s Ulysses. He is a complex character and Richard Flanagan investigates through him what it means to be a hero, however unlikely. This hero is also, as pointed out by another character in the novel, “a despicable womaniser close to ugly, a loner who hid in crowds, a man oblivious to any sort of authority except that which he commanded by some insulting grace of God…” Yet, despite his failings, Dorrigo becomes a hero. He becomes the leader of the prisoners of war. He is celebrated after the war as a hero.
The book is packed with memorable quotes. Here is a selection of the ones I found most interesting:
“One man’s feeling is not always equal to all life is. Sometimes it’s not equal to anything much at all.”
“But what reality was ever made by realists?”
“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.”
The book investigates the textual construction of the identities involved in the war. The reluctant hero of the work is a reader:
“He found several shelves full of old editions of classical writers and began vaguely browsing, hoping to find a cheap edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, which he had only ever read in a borrowed copy. It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books—an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone. And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work—an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.”
Similarly, the Japanese are portrayed as being obsessed with poetry, which is supposed to be brimming full with Japanese spirit. Their reading is closely connected with the ideology of imperialism. For example, we follow the musings of Nakamura:
“He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word—perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem—a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil. Yet somehow—in a way he tried not to dwell upon—this poem had become horror, monsters and corpses.”
The novel is filled with profound insights. The one that particularly sticks with me is the symbolism of the circle in the death poem of Shisui. On his death bed, the eighteenth-century haiku poet Shisui finally responded to requests for a death poem by grabbing his brush, painting his poem, and dying. On the paper, he had simply painted a circle. This symbolism is suggestive and it is significant, but it would take a reader a great deal of thinking to arrive at the meaning. Dorrigo himself only realises what the circle means at the moment of his own death and his meaning is never revealed to the reader.
The novel also explores what it means to be a prisoner and what it means to be free. There is always the question of who the prisoner of war is and whether war make prisoners of us all. This is evident in the sorry history of Choi Sang-min, the hated guard of the POW camp and the portrayal of why he has been enlisted in the army. It is implicit in showing us how the ideology of the Japanese made them prisoners to the ‘spirit’ of the Emperor. There is an example of the investigation of freedom in the character of Dorrigo Evans – “Many years later he found it hard to admit that during the war, though a POW for three and a half years, he had in some fundamental way been free.” Somehow, suffering and constraint result in freedom for Dorrigo. Perhaps it is the conflict or negotiation with constraint that makes us truly free.
Although I believe that the novel is intended to be anti-imperialist, there is a risk that it could be interpreted as anti-Japanese. I am not sure whether there is not a touch of this in the portrayal of the Japanese in the novel. The female characters are also not as convincing as the male characters. Despite these blemishes, the novel has weight. It is beautifully written and reminds us that we must not forget what supposed civilisation can descend into – a central theme is remembering, ‘lest we forget’. The closing scene in the novel is profound because it illustrates one of the Japanese poems which are distributed throughout the work – “In this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers.” I think because of this profundity, the novel is a work that one can return to again and again and that it positively rewards re-reading. A major accomplishment and well worthy of the Booker Prize.