“Why at the beginning of things is there always light?’
That’s the first line. In which Richard Flanagan references a book. The name of his Australian novel doppelgangs Basho, some of whose haiku are part of the text’s pattern.
Like in the 1940’s Siam POW camp, where an Aussie is spared decapitation because the Japanese officer with a sword in his hand, its blade whetted as is proper for beheadings, can’t recall the Basho haiku that it is his custom to recite before executions. In another scene we have also witnessed the practice sessions where a more junior officer gets to use his blade on lower ranking prisoners who are conscripted for the purpose.
Dorrigo Evans doesn’t want to be a hero but gets to be one by surviving and by assuming a caretaker’s role to a group of desperate men. The men are conscripted Australian POW’s, starving on little more than one dirty rice ball a day as they perish building a strategic rail line through the jungle of Thailand, then Siam, by order of their captor, the mercifully short-lived Japanese Empire.
This is the most consistently brutal book that I’ve ever read. I would read chapter after chapter thinking that now I must have gotten through the roughest part. But when I had read what I thought had to be the most depraved atrocity, the story would come up with something worse. In doing so the book mimics, as best as a literary text can, the mindset of POW’s struggling for hope in the most inhumane conditions.
As I became more experienced at reading the material, I felt I was being trained to take anything. There’s something of the elemental force of Joseph Conrad in the The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I finally decided to avoid reading the POW sections late at night. I came across some passages that were so grim I didn’t want to have to sleep after reading them.
I screened Waterloo Bridge, the Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor 1940 movie while in the middle of the book. The film is mentioned several times, provides some key elements to the novel’s arc and complements some of the wartime atmospherics of the novel from the point of view of the times.
In the film, Taylor, about to embark for duty in France, runs into Leigh on London’s Waterloo Bridge. They are separated after a brief affair but just before they are able to get married. They don’t see each other again until many years later, also by accident. There’s a prime 40’s nightclub scene in the film where at the last dance, candles are extinguished one by one until the room goes dark. The scene is copied in an Australian club in the novel.
Dorrigo meets Ella, the woman from a wealthy family that he marries, in the dusty upper room of a bookstore where he attends a book event by chance. But he meets Amy, the real love of his life at an inn run by his uncle where he decides to stay on a few days leave. Amy is his uncle’s young wife.
The relationships with Ella and Amy are beautifully modulated. You can’t forget that meeting in the dusky bookshop or the morning after that Amy and Dorrigo spend in the inn’s upstairs bedroom when her husband is away. The relationship with Dorrigo, Amy and her seemingly clueless innkeeper husband reminded me of the triangle in the diner between Garfield, Turner and Kellaway in another 1940’s classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
It seemed that Flanagan was reading my mind. He provided a lot of material on how Dorrigo felt about the women in his life. But just as I was getting restless to hear how the women felt, he wrote with insight about Amy and Ella. Throughout the novel, Richard Flanagan’s treatment of these complex relationships is subtle and affecting. Marriage without love but with a kind of inevitable social momentum evolves into marriage with a renewed tenderness of caring that, if not exactly love, comes close to it in some parallel dimension of feeling.
The novel’s concluding pages are an extended epilogue, a POW diaspora but also a reckoning with the fascist overseers. We find out what happens to the Aussies who survive along with Dorrigo as the novel ends up in the 1960’s. There are at least half a dozen after- stories by those who have struggled to forget or to remember. And there is an encounter on a bridge.
For those who felt that any act was justified if in accord with the Emperor’’s will, some face their war crimes while more just blend into the fifties. Flanagan, like a good barrister, tells us the stories of these hateful characters from their point of view, which is chiefly unrepentant. And after a period of postwar bringing to justice, surprisingly brief, both the victims and the war criminals want to move on.
I was intimidated by the prospect of reviewing this book. And doubly so by the possibility of interviewing the author. Three Guys One Book is just a little book blog. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan deserves a semester of course study or a long book club evening where there are candles that are slowly blown out, one by one.