I had never heard of Richard Flanagan until I watched Imagine on BBC 1 that celebrated the writer and his work. I bought a few of his books and started in on the 2014 winner of the Man Booker Prize. I expected great things and I was not disappointed.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a metonym for a place and time on the Line, a railway built by an estimated 250 000 Burmese and Chinese coolies and 60 000 prisoners of war though impenetrable jungle with little or no food and little or no resources. The story of the Line is the story of the men that built the line. A story of fiction and friction. ‘For the Line was broken, as all lines are finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remains.’ The Line is also about something bigger than man and lives transformed. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the title of Basho’s great haibun. The caricature that is Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura temporarily put aside talk of the Line to discuss the common ground on which they can meet to celebrate the purity and superiority of Japanese poetry, literature, and its spirit that would build a railway all the way through Burma (Thailand), all the way to India, a spirit that would conquer the world. The Line is a testing ground that asks the question, what is a man?
The answer depends where you stand on the Line. For a hollowed out Dorrigo Evans it is the lie that holds most true, in Auden’s words ‘you must love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.’ The Line is love and hate and all the primordial things they create, a stripping away of self and a revelation of who we really are. Dorrigo Evans earliest memories are of light, a theme that runs through the book, ‘of sun flooding through a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother’. Running in and out of the light and the welcoming arms of women. Flash forward forty years and Evans is lauded, a national hero and serial philanderer still running in and out of the arms of women, but feels he is a fraud about to be found out, as so many other men are. For he has been tested on the Line and found wanting. But like the Greeks, and the poets he admires, he finds time is not fixed, but elastic. He also finds his wife to be Ella’s welcoming lips as dry as dust. He loved once; Amy with his heart. She was never just a place to park his cock, another conquest, but he believes she died in a house fire. But it is the darkness of self, like the other men on the Line, he always returns; the darkness of rain cloud and tropical rain that demands ‘dominion over all things’ and the mud and the shit. The decisions he had to make as a commanding officer; a surgeon, making do, with sharpened spoons as scalpels; when the right decision is wrong and the wrong decision never right. A place where 1000 men like him rose up every day – Lazarus arising with hunger eating him alive like an animal. ‘You are never free of the world,’ he reasons, ‘to share life is to share guilt’. He remonstrates with Major Nakamura who demands more and more hours of work from fewer and fewer men. He tells him that four men had died overnight. That left 838 POWs. Seventy seven had cholera. Another 107 were in hospital. Another 176 were too ill for work, (eg. malaria, ringworm, podagra, avitaminosis, beriberi, gangrene, foot and leg ulcers that eat bone) other than light duties. Major Nakamura demands 500 fit men. Evans cannot find one fit man, but offers Nakamura, 363. But prisoners of war are not men, they have behaved in a dishonourable way and surrendered. If Evans cannot find 500 fit men, Nakamura will.
Richard Flanagan is best in the jungle with Dorrigo Evans and his brothers in arms, men like Darky Gardner, beaten to death by Japanese guards, as the men in the Line were forced to watch. Sheephead Morton, Tiny Middleton, Rooster MacNiece, Jimmy Bigelow, Lizard Brancussi; all names that resonate with a certain kind of Aussie (or Tasmanian) maleness, reduced to something less. It was no victory worth talking about and best forgotten if the war they fought was reduced to being a slave for the yellow man. ‘What was a prisoner of war anyway? Less than a man’ to the Japanese way of thinking. What springs to my mind is a radio interview of British veterans of these camps. They retuned on old ships, docking at Southampton docks, kissing the ground and rubbing our home soil into their face.
The book becomes less sure-footed in following the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and later, mainland Japan, in which tens of millions starved, among them Major Nakamura. His exploits are more B-movie than ManBooker Prize winner. Similarly, Dorrigo Evan’s denouement and his car chase through a burning- bush fire in Thailand to save Ella and his family, seems too large for a single life. But then again most lives are.
Flanagan has a point to make. The victims were not all on the allied side. Dorrigo Evans comes face to face with Japanese-military might, a boy soldier in the Burmese jungle on his way to fight on the front line, wherever the front line could be found. Even in his dilapidated state Evans could see the boy was little more than a bag of bones wearing the uniform of the Emperor. He felt sorry for him. The boy’s officers slapped and kicked him, hurrying him alone. Binto, the ritual abuse of slapping and hitting, was part of the soldier’s training as monsoon season was to the jungle. This brutalisation in the name of duty, honour and deference to the emperor’s will extended to the lowest of his subjects, which included the Koreans, mobilised, not as a fighting force, they weren’t pure enough for that, but as comfort women and as prison guards. The psychopathic Goanna, Choi Song-Min, executed as a Class B war criminal is also a boy soldier on the Line. But his backstory is not always convincing. For example he shows his psychopathic traits (as out of any trait handbook) by killing a dog and selling it to a butcher for ten yen, even though it was owned by the family he worked for. The point he makes while imprisoned for the brutalisation of men on the Line, and the death of Darky Gardiner is, however, valid. Where was the Emperor? Why wasn’t he being hanged? Why was the prisoners mainly Korean? Where were the big-wigs? Colonel Kota who openly admitted to cutting the heads of prisoners and of eating Americans POWs, hides in plain sight, and uses his ties with old moneyed soldiers to get a job for his junior, officer, Nakamura. Later Kota is revered as a great Buddhist poet; his death a sham. As Sato, who had helped in live human experiments of vivisection on American POWs, explained to Nakamura, the Americans want to forget about it and so do we. It’s business as usual.
‘We too are victims of war,’ says Nakamura. He goes to visit an officer below him on the Line, Tomokowa, whom he thought a bit stupid. He reminds him that they did their duty. It couldn’t have been that bad, with all the prisoner’s singing. And in Manchuria you were encouraged to kill and rape; you could have as many women as you liked. Don’t tell his wife but ‘It was the happiest time of his life’. Nostalgia and remembering changes the man and is a form of forgetting, epitomised by Hykakka:
melts into clear water-
clear is my heart.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, stark and true.