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End of the Line

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
(Chatto & Windus 448pp £16.99)

‘We will die, and who will ever understand any of this?’ So asks Colonel Dorrigo Evans, second in command of the Australian Imperial Force’s 2/7th Casualty Clearing Station, slave worker on the Siam–Burma ‘Death Railway’, and redoubtable hero of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan’s novel is dedicated to ‘prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)’ – his father, a survivor of the railway (and worse) during the latter half of the Second World War. And it has already become a significant bestseller in his homeland, where it serves, among other things, as another brick in the wall against forgetting.

Colonel Evans, a Tasmanian Army surgeon with a fondness for Tennyson (‘Ulysses’, not coincidentally) is mobilised for war – leaving behind a burgeoning affair with his uncle’s much-younger wife. After stints in Egypt, Syria, and Changi Gaol in Singapore, he winds up in 1943 in thrall to the murderous, ‘Pharaonic’ Burma railway (cf. The Railway Man, Bridge on the River Kwai, et al) – a project that, as the Japanese repeatedly relate, the supposedly advanced Western nations have never even dared to attempt.

The flag-waving Alec Guinness types having all quickly succumbed to cholera, this ‘most conventional of unconventional men’ finds himself in charge of a sub-unit of ‘shitting skeletons’ dressed in nothing more than ‘cock rags and AIF slouch hats’, hacking, drilling, digging and lugging their way north through Siam, belaboured by jungle, disease, tigers, metric measurements and pathologically-obtuse, haiku-reciting Japanese officers (Flanagan’s title is taken from Basho, famously a high point of Japanese cultural sensibility).

They live in an unreal reality – ‘north-north-west of no south’ – and the track they are laying becomes its own existential explanation: ‘the Line’, a meaningless, Euclidian progress into hell. Evans, as both unit leader and prison doctor, is solely responsible for practically every aspect of his dwindling band, his jury-rigged amputations and appendectomies cruelly nullified by the coin-toss nature of daily life on the railway. ‘Darky Gardiner died and there was no point to it at all.’

His men – colourful characters, many of them underage and all of them decades younger than they now appear – do what they can to get by (not all of it heroic): stealing food, memorising Mein Kampf or Mrs Beeton, sketching portraits of the prison officers (seemingly a nod to Ronald Searle; but perhaps that is doing someone a disservice). The literally muscular Christian Tiny Middleton embarks on such a Stakhanovite fuck-you to the Japanese that he endangers the lives of his less-able comrades. It is not, of course, an experience that is intended to be survived.

Their Japanese overseers subsume themselves in the only way that seems to work – to the ‘careless fatalism’ of the universe, or the Imperial will (‘a poem of one word’), or the railway’s progress through the landscape – and one of the greatest merits of the book is its unblinking elucidation of the Japanese point of view, especially where the human rights of their Australian prisoners were concerned. ‘Being prisoner great shame. Great! … Redeem honour building railway for Emperor.’ The Japanese commandant remarks that, for him, surrender would have constituted a capital offence. Army psychiatrists will later counsel the Australians not to talk about their time in South-East Asia.

Flanagan exhibits an almost faultless emotional intelligence (especially for the minutiae of infidelity) and a poet’s appreciation of the unsentimental detail. His prose is studded with dark, gleaming gems (a record needle ‘scratching circles of sand into the night’) which bestow the quiet blessing of veracity on episodes perhaps otherwise too outlandish or too harrowing to be thought real.

These are, by his own admission, experiences – albeit proxy ones – that Richard Flanagan has needed to get off his chest for some time, and The Narrow Road is a big book. Perhaps slightly too big. Its somewhat contrary billing as a ‘love story’ never sits right, and in the slower patches around the middle of the novel – dysfunctional Odyssean resonances notwithstanding – one begins to suspect that the author may have originally had two stories to tell, and allowed an only moderately substantial romantic storyline to piggyback on his war narrative.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, at the time of writing, on the shortlist for Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award – a fitting tribute to the memory, and indeed memories, of Arch Flanagan, the story’s progenitor, who died the day the novel was finished. Just because the world is, relentlessly, ‘what it is’ doesn’t mean it has to lack a certain poetry.

For Literary Review

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