Wednesday, May 6, 2015

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a powerful yet flawed novel of wartime experience

DVA Australia
Australian and British POWs lay track on the Burma-Thailand railway in 1943.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North makes The Bridge on the River Kwai look like a jaunty walk in the park.

After the fall of Shanghai in 1943, 9,000 Australians became Japanese prisoners of war, including Flanagan’s own father. They, along with other Allied POWs and impressed Asian laborers, were forced to cut through the jungle with nothing more than hand tools and build a railroad line between Thailand and Burma.

The line became known as the “Death Railway” and, all told, nearly 100,000 men died in the process. They were starved, beaten, riddled with diseases, including cholera, near naked (most dressed only in filthy
“cock rags”), pushed to keep working when they were too weak to stand or walk.

Only a small percentage of the prisoners survived and Flanagan’s father was one of them. Flanagan spent a great deal of time with his father (who died at age 98 on the same day that the novel was finished) hearing stories of the prison camp and the men who died there.

The main character of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Dorrigo Evans, a young medical officer who becomes the POW leader and, as such, must try to save as many of the men as possible. This includes not only as a physician and surgeon without medical supplies or equipment (there is one horrendous scene in which he attempts an amputation with a kitchen saw) – but also as the one who must bargain with the Japanese officers as to how many prisoners are fit to work each day. This bargaining is a contest he almost always loses.

Flanagan is unsparing in his descriptions of the cruelty of the Japanese captors. A Colonel Kota explains to a fellow officer how he was trained to behead prisoners with his sword. After his first successful attempt,

I no longer felt anything for that man. To be honest, I despised him for accepting his fate so meekly and wondered why he wouldn’t fight… Can I tell you something? There were always prisoners. If a few weeks had gone by and I hadn’t beheaded someone, I would go and find one not long for this world with a neck I fancied. I’d make him dig his grave…


It’s not just about the railway, Colonel Kota said, though the railway must be built. Or even the war, though the war must be won.

It’s about the Europeans learning that they are not the superior race, Nakamura said.

And us learning that we are, Colonel Kota said.

At the conclusion of this discussion, Nakamura reflects on how “clear and obvious” everything seems when talking with “such a kind, good man as Colonel Kota.”

The book, which recently won the Man Booker award, moves back and forth from Evans’ childhood to his old age. He has become something of a hero in Australia for his bravery:

And his own face did seem to Dorrigo Evans, who had never thought much of it, to be everywhere. Since being brought to public attention two decades before in a television show about his past, it had begun staring back at him from everything from charity letterheads to memorial coins. …Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs.

He is uncomfortable with this fame, feels like a fraud, and hates the idea that the months in the POW camp have come to define his entire life.

In addition to the detailed horror of the prison camp, the novel offers a kind of love story. At the time he ships out, Evans has started an affair with Amy, the wife of his own uncle. He is obsessed with her, even though he marries another woman, and even though, after the war, he has become a serial womanizer.

The response to the book has not been uniform. Ron Charles praised it: “Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” has shaken me like this – all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation.” (The Washington Post, 4/19/14)

Justin Cartwright was a little less enthusiastic, “This is a heroic book marred by its determination to demonstrate high seriousness, which often collapses into pop philosophy. But, for all its overstriving, this is a book you should read. It is unquestionably a work of astonishing energy and Richard Flanagan is unquestionably highly talented." (The Guardian, 4/22/15)

Amelia Lester hedged a little but was generally positive: “Flanagan’s tender, direct way of writing about the body is reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence, and some have found this side of his work a little embarrassing, even cheesy…but I’m moved by Flanagan’s sentimental men, known in the beginning as numbers and by the end revealed to possess secret wells of sentiment.” (The New Yorker, 10/15/14)

Michael Hoffman roundly panned it in the London Review of Books (July 2014). Among the nicer things Hoffman said was, “It’s all sham texture, bossy imagery and compressible or expandable time.” He added, “The book was described as having gone through many drafts, with Flanagan using those that didn’t make it to ‘light the barbie’. I can’t help thinking this wasn’t the right one to spare.”

This drew a smarmy response from the chair of the Man Booker Prize who wrote, “Whatever construction one places on Michael Hoffman’s review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it is obvious that it was written on a bad haemorrhoid day…I suggest that your readers read the novel for themselves, in order to check (in both senses) Hoffmann’s pretensions as a critic.” (Don’t you just love it when the Brits pitch hissy fits? They do it so much better than anyone else!)

However, I think Michiko Kakutani is the one who got it exactly right. She wrote:

Although “Narrow Road” turns out to be a deeply flawed novel, the chapters set in an Australian prisoner of war railway camp demonstrate his ability…to communicate both the abominations that men are capable of inflicting upon one another, and the resilence many display in the face of utter misery.

But, Kakutani adds, “the flashbacks and flash-forwards feel as though they had been cut and pasted from another novel: a cheesy one that mashed up D.H. Lawrence and a Harlequin romance… This novel would have been far more powerful and coherent if Amy were excised from the story.” (The New York Times, 8/17/14)

Photo by Ulf Andersen 
Richard Flanagan is the author of six novels which have received numerous honors and have been published in twenty-six countries. He lives in Tasmania, Australia. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize.

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