Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagen

I've had this book since the Booker Shortlist was announced in 2014, so almost exactly a year, and having read 4 of 6, this was one of the ones that I just sort of...never got around to. To be honest, I was inexplicably uninterested in reading it- possibly for its immensely boring cover, possibly because of its POW themes...possibly because my knowledge of Japan is non-existent and I thought I'd be uninterested in it. Anyway, it was chosen as a monthly read by my bookclub and my internal thoughts were "Urgh...well, at least you already have a copy". I can't believe how stupid last-month me was.

The narrative starts in a sort of hazy dream, but settles down to reveal an aged Dorrigo Evans and his sleepy thoughts alighting on his childhood on the island of Tasmania, school, various unimportant conversations he remembers and on Amy- a woman we will later learn was his Uncle's wife with whom Dorrigo had a short but intense affair; a woman with whom he shared an almost supernatural connection. We learn that elderly Dorrigo, a curmudgeonly, womanising drunk, is now considered something of a celebrity, a nationally celebrated war hero and aged but leading figure in the medical world. The story jumps between the modern day, Dorrigo's time as a POW, his post-war experiences and, briefly, the post-war experiences of some of the Japanese and Korean army personnel and guards. The latter is an interesting perspective, as the defeated forces try to justify and defend their war time actions as inevitable, commendable even.

The book is a harrowing story about allied prisoners of war slaving on the deadly Siam-Burma railway. 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction of the line, and as many as 90,000 local labourers. The Pacific campaigns of the Second World War remain more obscure than their Western equivalents. Everybody has heard of the Battle of Britain and the Normandy Landings and Stalingraad, but the Pacific War seems forgotten- my history isn't the best, but I couldn't say how Japan even ended up in WWII. The Narrow Road to the Deep North chronicles the life of Dorrigo Evans, a promising surgeon turned soldier that finds himself trying to work miracles out in the unceasing rain and mud of the Pacific jungles after he is captured. With no food, no medicine and no equipment, treating the prisoners for a tropical diseases full house of cholera, dissentry, malaria, malnutrition, ulcers, starvation, exhaustion, beri-beri is next to impossible. Although, British and American engineers had declared the notion of a railway in the locality impossible too, and that seems to be happening sure enough...As the most senior ranking allied officer, it also falls to him to lead the men, preserving their spirits as best he can and keeping them together. Though considered a great hero, leader and remarkable man by his troops, Dorrigo fails to find leadership qualities in himself, acting the part he believes people expect of him. He watches his friends and colleagues waste away and die in the most horrific conditions, knowing that there is nothing that he can do.

Conditions in the POW are hellish, and the treatment that the men are subjected to at the hands of the notoriously cruel Japanese Imperial Army is barbaric. Out of the thousands of prisoners that pass through the camp, most arrive severely ill or dying. Those that arrive fit and healthy slowly succumb to jungle maladies due to the poor hygiene, bad diet and sustained physical exhaustion. Forced to work 12 hour days, sometimes nights, with blunt hand tools and manpower alone, on little sleep and next to no food, the Japanese engineers demand faster work, quicker progress, despite the ever dwindling number of men and their rapidly deteriorating physical condition. Most die. The author really captures the unending toil and the impossibility of the task and the scale of the suffering. as the death toll spirals and men start to die faster than the remaining prisoners can burn them.

Flanagan's prose is simply beautiful. It's rich and full of grace, and some of the lines sing at you. Sometimes they sing of horror and death and everything that's awful in life, but the words sing. The imagery is gorgeous, and some of Flanagan's turns of phrase are so arresting that you go back and read the same line three times; I love how he conveys the sounds and humid heat of Tasmaia, the sea breezes and secluded hotel rooms of Adelaide...and less beautiful but no less sensory, the hellish, mudslide horror of the Burmese jungles, the stench of disease and the pain of survival. It's an emotional whirlwind of love and loss, duty and performance and a sensory explosion.

The cast of prisoners that populated the camp was brilliantly crafted, each of them, with enough personality to feel like a blow when they died. Individuality amongst prisoners feels life defiance and by creating such characterful inmates, it kind of felt like they rebelled against the anonymity pressed on them by the oppressive mud and the regime of the Japanese. The names are brilliantly Australian; Darky Gardiner, Sheephead Morton, Rooster MacNeice, Bonox Baker, Lizard Brancusi, I really liked Dorrigo too, flawed as he is. Despite his infidelity, his lies and his detached and manipulative personality in later life, he is always aware of his faults. He berates himself for not being a leader, for losing men, for failing to stop them dying. In reality he does all he can (that amputation scene will probably haunt me forever) and it's the guilt of survival that he feels- he just uses that pain to hurt those around him. I liked the strength he showed as POW and how his refusal to succumb to the Japanese brought some sense of comfort and rebellion to the prisoners. It's sad that he lacked purpose so much after the war- drifting into a loveless marriage and too unsure or too conventional to pursue the things that would've made him happy. He really shows how thoroughly war ruins a generation, that coming back in one piece is just the beginning.

The book sweeps the reader along so there is no time to dwell on the swirling and intertwined themes of guilt, all the different kinds of love, the conflict of being a good man and a terrible man all at once, the price of survival, family, legacy, what it means to be a hero. There's so much going on in this novel, and it's all tied up in a gripping and harrowing story about survival and dealing with what comes after it. I liked that Dorrigo hates being a hero, hates humility and praise. I suppose what he really feels is guilt- because it was luck and hope that let him get old enough to grow to hate heroics, not anything more than that. I found the final blow near the end to be affecting and quite emotional (even if it borders on the side of improbability).

So, in conclusion, I can't believe I waited so long to read this. I found it to be an incredible read; a harrowing but beautifully told story of the horrors of war and the consequences that live with soldiers for decades, the hangovers that last for generations after conflict. I'm so glad it got chosen as a Book Club read, or I might have dismissed it forever.

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