Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What We're Reading: 2014 Booker Award Winner

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is this year’s winner of the prestigious Man Booker Award, chosen annually for the best work in English fiction published in the British Commonwealth. The historical setting for the events described in this novel is the construction of the infamous Burma Railway by the Japanese in the jungles of Thailand and Burma in 1943. The railway was built to support Japanese troops fighting on the Burma front during World War II. The brutal treatment and suffering of the Asian workers and Allied prisoners of war who were forced to build the railway--a nightmare of physical violence, malnutrition, and disease--became famously known through Pierre Boulle’s novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and the film that was based on his work (titled slightly differently as The Bridge On the River Kwai). One hundred and eighty thousand mostly coerced Asian workers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (primarily British, Australian, and Dutch troops) worked on the railway. It is estimated that 90,000 Asian workers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died, a circumstance that was treated as a war crime and for which the Japanese commandant was convicted and received a commuted death sentence. 

Flanagan tells his story here through the experiences of the fictional Dorrigo Evans and his comrades. Evans is a young Australian surgeon who fights with British forces in the Mid-East during World War II. His unit is transferred to the Asian theater and captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. When higher-ranked officers die, Evans becomes the commanding Australian officer in the POW camp and tries to mitigate the suffering of his soldiers. The novel visits Evans's life both before and after the experience in the POW camp, as a young man and in his role in later life as a celebrated Australian war hero, but the major focus of the book is on the nightmarish ordeal of his internment. In a subplot, Flanagan also follows the life of one of the Japanese commanders of the camp after the war.

His novel explores the nature of good and evil as he presents us with one character who seems not to understand or recognize his essential goodness, and the other, the Japanese commander, who believes the unspeakable evil he and his colleagues have done to be the actions of a good man. Flanagan employs two parallel story lines, one of a long-term romantic relationship and one of the POW experiences to explore his themes on an epic canvas, where--in their reach for transcendence in love and war--human beings prove capable of extremes of great goodness and unspeakable evil and cruelty.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North borrows its title from the great classic of Japanese literature, Matsuo Basho’s 17th century travelogue (written in prose and haiku) considered by many to represent the very essence of Japanese character and culture. It is used by Flanagan as a title with ironic undertones for the railway itself, but Flanagan also references Basho’s work throughout the novel as he tries to understand how the poetic beauty and spiritual thought (and morality) of Basho’s work could have been transmogrified, and made companionable in the Japanese mind, with the evil and criminality of their actions in World War II. It is a conundrum that will probably receive yet further contemporary exploration with the release of the film Unbroken.

Some of the reviews of Flanagan’s novel have been critical of the scope of its ambition, concerned that Flanagan tries to explore too many universal and complex themes in his story. There is indeed a lot to think about here. But the criticism that seems most unwarranted is that which relates to what some have viewed as the romanticism or sensationalism of the prose style. This is, it must be said, a deeply dark and visceral book that many will find hard to read, an extraordinary recreation of a hell on earth that will remind readers of Dante’s Inferno. Through his use of an astonishing amount of historical detail, as well as his remarkable imagery, Flanagan makes us understand the experience of those who suffered. It is not a realization that historical narrative alone could give us. It serves to remind us of the role that art can have in helping us to understand and to empathize with the historical experience of others. You will not forget the human goodness here, but you will not forget the unspeakable acts either.

One of those Australian prisoners who worked on the Burma Railway was Richard Flanagan’s father, to whom the book is dedicated. Flanagan completed this novel on the day his father died. He has written a searing story, as he intended, but he has also built a moving memorial, one deserving of the accolades it has received, and one likely to stand the test of time.


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