Book: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price: Rs 599
“There is something about a tale, a story, that will be always going on. I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories.” — Jorge Luis Borges
Richard Flanagan did not get the Man Booker for exploring the ancient and epic themes of love and war in his The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The merit of Flanagan’s novel lies not in choosing to deal with the Burma chapter of World War II, but in evoking it in its singular barbarity and elevating it into a story of war as the human race has known it for the whole of its civilised history. The theme of love (and lust) could not have remained apart once Flanagan, 53, chose to deal with the totality and interminability of violence. Love and lust complete the human story of war. Whether Flanagan succeeds equally in delineating the courses and ironies of love is open to debate. But he could not have written his primary plot any better.
If Flanagan’s father had not passed away on the night the final draft was ready, the 12 years and five versions it took him to get to the Booker may still have built a little legend of his tribulations. The war in Burma and the engineering from hell that was the “Death Railway” had all been accounted for. Yet, Flanagan has not only made a fresh effort to explore the subject in fiction but has also been in the best, albeit sorriest, place to write it — his father’s experiences on the Thailand-Myanmar rail link as a Japanese PoW, an abomination even by the standards of WWII.
A great war novel lifts itself above the uniforms on the ground. Flanagan’s title refers to a haibun by 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. This tribute to Japan’s civilisational and cultural history is an acknowledgement of the humanity of the Japanese guards. Flanagan’s nuancing of the narrative, tracing them in amiable old age in Japan, including the officer in charge, Nakamura, whose machinations save him from a war crimes trial but who dies of cancer eventually, depicts the guards too as victims, tied to their Australian PoWs by the causal logic (or lack thereof) of fate. That the guards’ guilt flowed from Nakamura’s orders, who himself was following the Emperor’s, does not pause at underscoring all clichés about the “banality of evil”. They puncture those clichés.
Flanagan’s prose manoeuvres itself masterfully over his subject. It is quite poetic looking into the human heart, its longings and terror. The same prose soon mutates into the corpses at our feet, the burst tropical ulcers, the rotting bones, the omnipresent moribundity. This surety of craft enables Flanagan to handle his protagonist, military surgeon Dorrigo Evans, in charge of his men toiling on the Death Railway, who never considers himself a hero. Evans and Nakamura could have been the moral poles of the tale, but Flanagan resists that reductive temptation. Instead, we see them in middle age as the transplanted ruins of the war and the railway. Evans survives on the memory of his passionate affair with Amy, his uncle’s young wife, and marries Ella, who has had the goodness and strength to await his return.
Irrespective of A.C. Grayling’s praise for the novel’s philosophical depth, Flanagan tells his tale with firmness, pacing the narrative and spacing the characters with almost mathematical precision. He is less successful with the overused device of moving back and forth in time. Amy, the core that serves as the counterpoint to the violence and that overshadows Evans’ post-war life, is another weak link.
The Narrow Road surpasses Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan’s very Tasmanian Tristram Shandy-Moby Dick punch. This is a tale that has been told before and will go on being told. But the signature Flanagan leaves us with is Evans’ conviction that apart from the Death Railway, “little else had ever happened”. The truth that Evans grasps, of a “terrifying world in which one could not escape horror… [that] all of human history was a history of violence”, is a debilitating epiphany, after which even the act of reading is an effort. Yet, it is not a truth for all of us to acknowledge.