Richard Flanagan’s epic novel of horror and heroism in Burma
In “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan re-creates the ordeal of Allied POWS who worked on the Thailand-Burma “death railway” during World War II. Flanagan reads Sept. 8 at the Northeast branch of the Seattle Public Library, and Sept. 9 at
Special to The Seattle Times
Richard Flanagan will read from “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” at two Seattle locations: At 6:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library, 6801 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle. Free (206-684-7539; spl.org). He will read at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”
by Richard Flanagan
Knopf, 352 pp., $25
This is a book that Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan (“Gould’s Book of Fish,” 2002) seemed fated to write. In 1943, Flanagan’s father was a prisoner of war who worked on the Thailand-Burma “death railway” under Australian war hero, army surgeon Edward “Weary” Dunlop. Cruelly driven past all endurance by their Japanese captors, over 100,000 Allied POWs and Asian slave laborers died working on the line.
Partly based on Dunlop, Flanagan’s damaged protagonist Dorrigo Evans looks back from the vantage point of old age, struggling to make sense of what he has experienced and what it has made of him. He feels, in the words of his favorite poem, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” like “ ... and idle king ... Match’d with an aged wife, ... I am become a name.”
In his youth before the war, Dorrigo fell desperately in love with young Amy Mulvaney, the wife of his uncle Keith. In describing their all-consuming affair, Flanagan seems at times to have turned the pen over to his besotted hero.
Memories of their superlative passion provide a respite for the reader in the horrors that are to come, as they do for Dorrigo himself. In later years, haunted by the great might-have-been of Amy, Dorrigo neglects his wife Ella, a patient Penelope to his Ulysses, seeking safe harbor in the arms of countless women.
Yet Dorrigo’s unresolved chord isn’t love but death; that sweet oblivion of death that came to embrace so many of Dorrigo’s suffering mates on the line, the living ulcerated skeletons whose well-being lay in his hapless charge.
There are passages toward the middle of Flanagan’s book that rival Dante in their unrelenting depictions of nightmarish atrocity and degradation and of staggering futility. It is in describing this crucible of suffering that Flanagan’s own poetic mastery is most keenly felt and appreciated. One could not wish a more capable Virgil to guide our steps through this hell.
The novel’s title, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” is borrowed from the 17th-century poet Basho’s classic haiku travel journal, and poetry serves as a pathway into the conflicted hearts and minds of those Japanese soldiers whose cruel lot it is to play the roles of demons in their emperor’s infernal enterprise. One officer’s rapturous praise of the sublime haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson, follows hard upon an account of his apprenticeship beheading starved and cowering Chinese prisoners.
After the war, the survivors — tortured and torturers alike — are left to somehow come to terms with what one soldier calls “the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings.” Many do not survive the peace, while others enter a curious haunted half-life that is this novel’s province.
The brilliant paradox of Flanagan’s introspective novel is that a work of such powerful remembrance should so movingly capture our inmost longing to forget. In the arms of a lover or the lines of a great haiku, we seek to transcend and extinguish the self.
Flanagan reportedly wrote four versions of this novel, one of 13 just longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, over several years of meticulous research before completing this one, just as his father died. In some ways it is a work that can never truly be finished, but what Flanagan has got down on paper here is a moving and necessary work of devastating humanity and lasting significance.
David Wright is a reader services librarian at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch. Get a personalized reading list from David and his fellow librarians at Your Next Five Books. www.spl.org/yournext5