During the second world war, Richard Flanagan’s father was one of the many thousands of Anzac prisoners forced to work on the Death Railway by the Japanese. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is, in part, his story – a picture of cruelty; insanity; and the pain that bound a body of men so closely that they became a single, tortured, surviving organism. Both inside and outside the PoW camps, however, it is also a story about the strange pairings in life: the unsettling way in which we can be at our best during times of great suffering; the fact that the deepest love is so often paid for by the sharpest grief; and beauty’s way of flourishing even in the more hopeless circumstances.
Poetry is the artery of the novel. Dorrigo Evans, the flawed hero of the story, is a man who loves words because they were the “first beautiful thing” he knew. His Japanese nemeses, the brutal men who run the camps and mete pain out so readily, also love poetry – in particular haiku and the death-poems of their nation’s greatest poets. We are told that it used to be customary for great Japanese poets to compose a final poem shortly before their death: when asked to write his own death-poem, the poet Shinsui simply drew a circle. Flanagan sets his story around this idea of an endless cycle; life repeats, echoes itself, and ends where it begins.
At the beginning of the story, then, Dorrigo becomes a doctor, enlists and prepares for war. He meets a young woman called Amy in a bookshop one afternoon when he is on leave, noticing the beauty-spot above her lip and the dust motes in the air, and feels as though something fundamental has passed between them. It transpires some time later that she is in fact married to an uncle of his, and the pair embark on a passionate affair. It is not a typical tale of forbidden love, however – even in the time Dorrigo and Amy spend together, when they are intoxicated and caught up with the newness of their relationship, they remain distinct and individual. The first time they make love on the beach by Amy’s home, they are interrupted by a dog with a dead fairy penguin in its mouth. “Their understanding of each other had been greater than that of God’s. And a moment later it had vanished.” Flanagan does not allow them to merge – Dorrigo and Amy, even if it looks as though they are falling in love, do not become “twins”, as Plato would have had it. They are not two halves of a whole – they are each complete and almost lonely despite their intimacy.
During the war and once he has been parted from Amy, Dorrigo finds himself protecting a group of Australian men in a Japanese prisoner of war camp; his status as a doctor and his innate ability to lead set him apart, and the soldiers grow to depend on him. The horrors of the camps are vividly drawn, and the men’s ulcerous, diseased bodies are described in awful detail. Some of the Australians display heart-breaking selflessness in a bid to keep their friends alive, whilst others show a propensity to sacrifice their comrades so that they might live. Above all, though, Flanagan tells us that these broken men, forged together in the heat of this terrible suffering, become like “a single organism.”
“And the only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.”
Like the monstrous bodies in so many Greek tragedies, these men are transformed into something unreal and beyond human. And the separatedness between Amy and Dorrigo, which I at first had written off as a depiction of love I could not relate to, suddenly made sense as I read these passages: infatuation and sex are not as powerful a glue as endurance. By the same token, one of the most exquisite descriptions of love I have ever read is given to a widow talking to Dorrigo after the war who barely had time to get to know her husband before he was lost to her in a foreign jungle.
“…one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She just 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…..We didn’t really know each other. I’m not sure if I liked everything about him. I suppose some things about me annoyed him. But I was the that room and he was that note and now he’s gone. And everything is silent.”
Culturally, we might value romantic love above all; but here it is not the pinnacle of human unity. To feel infatuation is easy – our ability to cling on to life and to find something beautiful in times of hardship or loss, though – that, Flanagan shows us, is truly remarkable.
It is a symptom of these strange, paradoxical pairings of life and death, beauty and pain that nobody in the novel is permitted to be either “good” or “bad”. Dorrigo is mercurial, intelligent and brave, and dedicates himself to saving as many lives as he can when he leads the men in the camp. After the war, though, we are told that he is a womaniser; that he drinks too much; that he has pioneered a spurious new surgical method; and that he is cold to the wife who loves him. The lead Japanese guard, Nakamura, is addicted to amphetamines as a way of surviving the horrors of his camp; loves poetry; and experiences flashes of something approaching shame as he tries to comprehend the level of suffering he has been asked to inflict in the name of the Emperor. Yet he is also monstrous, presides over endless murders, and often feels proud of what he has done. The thing that binds them, these flawed survivors, is that civilian life after the war is a trial both to the prisoners and their guards – in a perverse way their lives felt the most meaningful when they were trapped in their tropical nightmare. “Adversity brings out the best in us, the podgy War Graves Commission officer sitting next to him had said….It’s everyday living that does us in.” It is not a new sentiment, the idea that you can feel most alive when closest to death – but Flanagan gives it such force and meaning. Like the extraordinarily tender description of love delivered by a woman who barely had a chance to feel it, peace is perhaps not the prize the men thought it would be. Life, Flanagan shows us, is certainly never easy to comprehend, and cannot be reduced into neat parcels of right and wrong.
Ultimately, the novel ends where it begins – with light, a church, and the proximity of childhood and death. This generation of flawed heroes and their torturers may have all but disappeared now, but life continues, and recycles. A new generation will love, and suffer, feel loneliness and perhaps the bonds of a shared ordeal; and in a sense that is what the novel leaves you with – the power of words to document these circles of vitality and to find the beauty in every aspect of our transient, bewildering lives. It is an extraordinary novel, and fully deserves the praise it has earned.
“He was in any case hurtling backwards into an ever faster swirling maelstrom of people, things, places, backwards and round and deeper and deeper and deeper into the growing, grieving, dancing storm of things forgotten or half-remembered…”