Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Vintage Books
Release Date: 2013
Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize 2014 for this historical novel that portrays the horrors of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway construction during World War 2, his own father being a survivor of one of the slave labor camps. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners died during that ordeal.
Flanagan’s protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, finds himself in command of hundreds of sick and starving prisoners of war in the jungle camp. He has to make daily decisions about which ones are to work and probably die on “the Line” (the railway) by bargaining with their Japanese captors, who are of the firm belief that dying while working for the emperor will make up for the embarrassment of being captured. He also “chooses” which ones are to be on lighter duty and which ones belong in the hospital (a shabby tent with little to no equipment). All of this while being completely aware of his own inability to rescue them. The daily struggles of these choleric and ulcer-ridden men, several of whom we are introduced to in some detail, are described in so graphic and haunting a manner that it easily overshadows every other part of the book. One particular operating scene had me skimming through a page or two and cringing all over.
“Sloughing tendons and fasciae were exposed, the muscles were tunneled and separated by gaping sinuses, between which he could glimpse a raw tibial bone that looked as if a dog had gnawed it. The bone, too, was starting to rot and break off into flakes. He lifted his gaze to see a pale, wasted child.”
Their situation is more than desperate and it is heart-wrenching to read about their attempts at rationing out the tiny ball of filthy rice that is the only food they get during the inhumanly long and grueling work day. They’re simply wasting away and I had a hard time deciding whether to hope they would just die already and be done with it, or make it out of the camp. Turns out that even for the ones that do manage to make it through the war, surviving isn’t that easy. Wives have moved on, lives have changed, and for some suicide seems the only solution. As someone remarks, “it’s everyday living that does us in”.
Their tales are so engaging that I wished the whole book would be about them and their time in the camp. What sets this aside from other tales of the horrors of the war camps is that Flanagan switches between the point of view of Dorrigo or his men, and that of the Japanese commanders and Korean guards. The Japanese worship of the emperor, the Korean’s cruel execution training, the complete religious and political zeal is put in stark contrast to their post-war striving to be kind and good, and the sense of having just done what was necessary at the time. Flanagan does not excuse these men or claim that the execution of one particular Korean guard was unjust. But he does paint an interesting picture of denial and self-absolution.
“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.”
To his own amazement, Dorrigo’s selfless commitment to his men and desperate attempts at saving them, earns him post-war celebrity and war-hero status. Both this, the war and the rest of his life – including his loveless marriage and numerous infidelities, are, however overshadowed by the affair with his uncle’s wife Amy before the war. This love affair seems to serve as a contrast to the horrors of the war, but is unfortunately also in stark contrast to the beautifully written and deeply engaging tales of the inhabitants of the Death Railway camp. The Amy parts of the book read like a semi-cheesy romance novel and it simply gets too soapy at times. Fortunately, the great parts of the book make up for this.
Overall, the book is beautifully constructed with its shifts in time and perspective and while Flanagan does occasionally get a bit too philosophical, Dorrigo’s musings over life, love and ultimately loss are deeply moving and devastating. The stories of the soldiers, captors and guards, both during and especially after the war, are engaging and heart-breaking. And Flanagan’s writing is so poetic and beautiful that I’m willing to forgive almost anything.