In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world. – from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 94 –
It is August of 1943 along the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans and his comrades are struggling each and every day to survive as POWs in a Japanese camp. They face starvation, daily beatings, illness, monsoons, mud…and the never-ending toil to complete the great railroad which the Japanese Emperor desires. Dorrigo lives for his men, he fights for their survival, and mourns their deaths. He tries to banish his memories of his uncle’s wife – a woman who enchanted him, loved him, and changed his world.
How does anyone survive the tortures of being a prisoner of war? That question kept repeating itself to me as I read and tried to find the meaning hidden behind the transcendent prose of Richard Flannagan.
They are survivors of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other, a belief that they cleave to only more strongly when death comes. For if the living let go of the dead, their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever. – from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 155 –
This nonlinear novel takes the reader from the hot, wet jungle of Burma to Australia years after the war. It explores death, the connection between humans in the face of adversity, evil, goodness, guilt and remorse…and the power of love.
Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness. – from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 291 –
This is a brutal novel and one that is not for the faint of heart. Flannagan’s prose is searing, devastating, and measured. There is a good deal of brutality and violence. The suffering of the POWs is revealed in affecting language that made it hard for me to fall asleep at night.
The main character – Dorrigo – at first seems unlikeable, but by the end of the book, it is clear his heart is wholly human: flawed, proud, loving, resentful. He is a complex man who is forever changed by his experiences. In fact, the Japanese guards are also portrayed as not all evil – they have families, they love, they fear. If it were Flannagan’s desire to develop humanity within his characters, even those who commit unspeakable acts, he has succeeded.
One message that the novel seems to impart is that of the pointlessness of war. The Thai-Burma Death Railway was constructed in 1942-43 as a means for the Japanese to supply forces in Burma while bypassing the sea routes that made them vulnerable to attack. More than 12,000 allied troops being held captive, died during the railway’s construction…including 2700 Australians. Flannagan reflects on the railway post-war:
And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass. – from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 227 –
The Narrow Road to the Deep North captured the 2014 Man Booker Prize and I believe it was worthy of this award. While it is difficult reading on an emotional level, the prose is deeply moving and offers a look into the human spirit. Basho’s literary classic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, suggests: “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Flannagan’s novel, which borrowed Basho’s title, is about the journey of one man…and his search for “home.” Readers who are not squeamish and who enjoy literary fiction, will want to put this one on their reading list.