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Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I have never really taken to Richard Flanagan. His books have been well reviewed in Australia, the UK and the US. Of the three that I have read, all seem of interest but yet, somehow, they do not really gel for me. At the start, this book, like the others, seems lacking in subtlety, too much in your face and just trying too hard. This may well be the Australian way, though I have certainly read some very fine Australian books that are not of this kind, and the fault is probably mine for not being Australian. However, the final part is very well written and does more or less make up for the early part. The title of the book, by the way, comes from the work of that name by the Japanese poet Bashō. (It is also the title of a play by Edward Bond.)

I imagine that for most Westerners, the film of the Bridge Over the River Kwai is the source of their knowledge of the construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese during World War II, using forced labour. The film focuses on the British and, to some degree, US role in the construction of the railway. However, there was also a large contingent of Australian prisoners-of-war involved as well and Flanagan’s story is about them.

The main character is Dorrigo Evans. We know he survives his ordeal in the camp as, early on, we see his life well after the war. Indeed, he is now seventy-seven and still having extramarital sex. We also know that a key event happened at the camp, involving a sergeant called Darky Gardiner, whom he had met when with the troops in Syria, though we only find out the details later. With the plot jumping backwards and forwards, there are few surprises, except for what exactly happened on that day in the camp and what happened with his relationships.

There are three main plot strands. The first is the camp. We see the brutality of the Japanese towards the Australians but we also see that the officers seem not to take too much care of their men with, of course, the exception of Dorrigo Evans. Dorrigo is a surgeon and holds the rank of major and soon becomes the ranking Australian officer as his senior officer, Colonel Rexroth, as well as many of the men, dies. Flanagan does not hold back on the brutality, even giving us a blow by blow account by a visiting Japanese colonel of how he and his fellow junior officers had beheaded Chinese prisoners in Manchuria. We also see how there is a greater push by the Japanese to accelerate the construction of the railway, despite the fact that the men lack decent tools and equipment, are starving and ill and they are having to work ever longer hours in harsh conditions and while suffering from ill health. For the Japanese, of course, these men are weak, firstly because they surrendered instead of fighting to the death and, secondly, because they are not Japanese. The Japanese view is that the greater glory of Japan, which includes construction of the railway, takes precedence over the health, welfare and, indeed, lives of the prisoners. If they were only a little more accepting of the great role destiny had given them, he [camp commandant Major Nakamura] wouldn’t have to drive them so pitilessly. However, both Major Nakamura and Colonel Kota, the visiting beheader, talk lovingly and knowingly of the great works of Japanese literature.

The second plot strand precedes this and takes place while Dorrigo is in basic training. His uncle by marriage lives not far away (he has never met him) and he invites Dorrigo to visit him at the hotel/bar he owns. Dorrigo does visit him and meets his uncle Keith’s younger wife, Amy. Keith is often absent on business so naturally Dorrigo and Amy have an affair. Dorrigo is not only cheating on his uncle but also on Ella his girlfriend. We know, more or less, what will happen, as he is still married to Ella when he is seventy-seven and still cheating on her.

The third plot strand is the present. Thanks to a 1972 documentary on the Burma Railway camps, Dorrigo has a certain amount of fame. He has also continued his medical career with some success, though the invention of a new medical procedure to cure colonic cancer was a failure and may have caused some premature deaths. He is having an extramarital affair with the wife of a close colleague but still thinks longingly of Amy and, of course, the shadow of what happened in the Burma Railway camp still hangs over him. However, he remains arrogant – These days he relied on the increasingly fragile assumption that what he said was right, and what was right was what he said.

But then the war ends and this is where the novel suddenly becomes much better. Flanagan outlines what happens to many of the key characters – Japanese, Australian and Korean (Japanese prison guards were often Korean) – and tells his story well. Yes, we see further examples of Japanese atrocities but Flanagan does not punish his Japanese characters too much. He does, however, very much make the point that it is the ordinary soldier that bears the brunt of the punishment for the war crimes while the senior officers get away with it. (If all their actions were simply expressions of the Emperor’s will, why then was the Emperor still free?, asks one of the Korean guards.) But it is the Australian survivors who seem to do badly, suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases. Too many of their children seemed born with problems and troubles, handicapped or backward or plain odd. Too many of their marriages faltered and staggered, and if they lasted it was sometimes more due to the codes and customs of the day than to their own capacity to make right all that was wrong; and what was wrong was too large for some of them. They went bush by themselves; they stayed in town with others and drank too much; they went a bit crazy like Bull Herbert, who lost his licence drunk and took to riding a horse into town when he wanted a drink, and he wanted a drink a lot after he made a suicide pact with his wife, shared poison with her and woke up to her dead and himself alive. They went silent or they talked too much, like Rooster MacNeice, run to fat and showing off his appendix scar and carrying on about the Japs bayoneting him.

We have seen something of what happens to Dorrigo Evans in the earlier parts but we learn a lot more now. We learn, of course, about Amy, but also about his marriage, which is not a happy one, like that of the other survivors. Indeed, his wife describes him as the loneliest man in the world. And we follow him to his death. Indeed, none of the survivors Flanagan portrays has a peaceful and easy death.

This is certainly the best of the three Flanagan novels that I have read. Critics have been full of praise for it and some may well consider the earlier parts fine writing, even though, for me, they lacked subtlety and seemed more intent on shocking than telling a good story. Yes, there were a couple of twists in the plot. However, it is not till the war ended and the survivors struggled to get on with their lives, all too often failing, that I felt that the novel lived up to its billing.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Random House