Having borrowed its name from Basho’s Haiku, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is about the horrors of war and slavery experienced by the Australian POWs in the second world war in the construction of the Burma death railway. the construction was ordered by the Japanese emperor to provide reinforcements to the Japanese allies.The Narrow Road To The Deep North talks about the railway itself as “the line” which is also a metaphor for the death of the workers who died there.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North is based on the experiences of Richard Flanagan’s father who was a POW at one of the camps toiling away in the construction of the Burma death railway. The book provides a view into the differences of perceptions and how the people or rather the war victims; be it the Japanese who ran the camps or the prisoners who were forced to work. The majority of the book revolves around a single day at the camp.
The day that Dorrigo Evans will be forced to live and relive every time his post-war fame got the best of him. The protagonist of the book The Narrow Road To The Deep North is Dorrigo Evans who is a womaniser and still believes in fidelity while committing adultery. His life takes on a different turn when he meets Amy (his uncle’s wife), somehow he feels attached and intrigued by her and their short lasting romance haunts him throughout his remaining life. His experiences while in the war camp and his unflinching admiration or rather affection for Amy provides stark contrast throughout the novel. It took Flanagan twelve years to writeThe Narrow Road To The Deep North which he had based on his father’s experiences. His father himself had been a prisoner on the death railway war camp and that is what inspired Flanagan to write about it.The Narrow Road To The Deep North ended up winning a lot of praise and awards most notably the Man Booker Prize in the year 2014.
Transcendence is an important theme in this novel – one that Flanagan links to empathy as a feasible alternative to the self-centeredness of subjectivity as it is sketched in the novel. The importance of empathy is articulated in the story of Darky Gardiner, later revealed to be the child of an Indigenous mother, Ruth Maguire, and Dorrigo Evans’ older brother, Tom. Although reviewers have focused on the love story recounted in this novel in terms of the affair between Amy and Dorrigo (Dorrigo is Amy’s nephew by marriage), it is the performatively elaborated relationship between Evans and his unacknowledged nephew that supplies the context through which identity and subjectivity come into relevance in this novel.
Another theme that appears in the book is love. “Love, as a confirmation of life, and war, as a feast of death, emerge as major themes of Flanagan’s novel and are addressed in the manner of a Shakespearean problem play. The marriage of true minds, sparked by Catullus’s poetry and developed to the rhythm of Tennyson’s Ulysses, has to be kept secret lest it is condemned as adultery, while love as duty is lauded as true love in the ignorant eyes of the public. similarly, in the depths of the tropical jungle, where starved prisoners are riddled with malaria, cholera, diarrhoea, and beriberi, and their captors are methamphetamine addicts, war is stripped of all glory, nobility, or greater purpose.”
This contrast between love and war is visible throughout the book. While the main protagonist is forced through the worst of situations ever unimagined by him he is still troubled by the one love he had had that hadn’t been and wasn’t going to be accepted by the social norms. While war has done its work on the world and countries are plagued by it, through the forced situations and imprisonments of the characters, the author shows the hell war is and still somehow, Dorrigo Evans is still perturbed by the self-induced imprisonment that he feels is inflicted on him by the short affair he had had with Amy.
Another theme that surfaces in the novel are the ‘national spirit’ which is one of the main driving forces behind the Japanese soldiers and corporals maintaining the war camp. While most of the book deals with the viewpoint of the Australian POWs, there are instances in the book where Flanagan provides an insight into the minds of Japanese soldiers and how they perceive the situations they find themselves in. this difference in perception also helps in the creation of an opinion into their minds about the slave labourers or rather the ‘tools’. In a conversation with Nakamura, Corporal Kota says,
“… I know the English and Australians are lazy. I know they complain they complain they are too tired or too hungry to work. That they take one small spadeful and stop for a rest. One blow to the hammer, then they halt. That they complain about insubstantial matters such as being slapped. If a Japanese soldier neglects his work he expects to be beaten. What gives cowards the right to not being slapped?…”
“… I’m the proof that old soldiers’ sayings are not always true. But it is very harsh there. The American air power is incredible. And day after day we were pounded by their Lockheed. Day and night, bombed and strafed. We would be given a week’s rations and expected to fight for a month. If only we had salt and matches in the combat area, we could have coped with anything. But I tell you, what of the Americans and Australians? They can boast only of their material power, their machines, their technology. Wait and see! We will wage a war of annihilation. Every officer and man in our army there is churning with the desire to massacre all Americans and Australians. And we will win because our spirit will endure when theirs crumbles.”
Another mention of the ‘spirit’ is made later on in the book. “No matter the adversity, no matter what lack of tools and manpower Nakamura might have to put up with, he would endure, the railway would be built, the war would be won and all this would be because of the Japanese spirit.” The characters (Nakamura and Kota), reveal their own beliefs and opinions even though the scarce amount of their appearance in the book. The national spirit that seems to engulf the Japanese though unseemingly and overshadowed by the other themes in the novel is also one of the most prominent ones in the book.
The novel touches a wide horizon of issues but the one that surfaces later on in the book and engulfs the whole of the book in itself is the cruelty and futility of war. Throughout The Narrow Road To The Deep North there are descriptions of the cruelty in the war camps and while the story progresses in a scattered form it doesn’t take shape till the latter part of the book where the war camps and the woes of the people forced to be there (the slaves and free alike) are brought out in the front and their lives and miseries are described in an almost melancholic poetic tone which. The Japanese soldiers drudge on with the help of drugs and the prisoners drudge on till they fall apart and die of the many chronic diseases that had spawned there. All this had been done so that the railway or rather, “the Line”, could be built, and it is and is then discarded, as useless, insubstantial, and all that remains is the people trying to find any meaning as to why.
“For the line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it, nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only.
And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.”
Due to the actions of few men who got hold of the power they had no idea how to use and so driven by their own bloated ego and the loss of conscience was a war sprung again to bless the world with misery and hardships with no escape as long as it lasted. And many more after that. A difference in beliefs about the right and wrong has always been and always will be a reason to quarrel and does sometimes also become a reason for war.
For what is war if not people killing each other over different beliefs. If it’s a couple, its a brawl. If it’s thousands, it’s a riot. And if it’s millions, it’s a war. The wars are long forgotten with the dead and their loved ones and with the passing of time when no trace is left, people are there to try and conjure up a purpose or a reason for the atrocities committed.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North follows a scattered narrative that is apparent from the beginning itself. The book starts with Dorrigo Evans having flashbacks about the life he has lived, the scattered memories, his earliest and his last, most despised and most cherished. The narrative while supposed to be effective throws off the reader as outright confusing because to understand the memories the context has not been built up to. Though as the novel progresses and the story begins to form and the scattered narrative from outright confusing becomes somewhat beautiful.
Throughout The Narrow Road To The Deep North the juxtaposition of various voices and perspectives is visible. This provides various viewpoints to similar situations which provide the reader with enough insight to delve deep into the world of the characters and makes the novel rich while also decreasing the chances of a flawed narrator.
The novel is rich with literary devices, there are couple instances of supernatural foreshadowing, imagery and euphemism like “the line”. There are instances where rather than describing the death or giving some news, the characters use ‘walking the line’ as the appropriate phrase to preserve whatever sanctity they have left.
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is a work well worth the acclamations it has received. The book while progresses slowly at first and is filled with the time Dorrigo had spent with Amy with an occasional break from the war camp. The novel as a whole is a story of a day’s events. A day at the war camp which resonates in Dorrigo’s mind throughout his life later on as a celebrity or a man or as a survivor or a parent. He his haunted by that day and the reason is revealed in, though dramatic, an astounding manner. The novel also at times appear flawed as the tone seems superficial and pretentious. Dorrigo’s love for poetry seems to have granted him the knowledge of words but not the emotions and experiences which are the reason that the tone of the narration seems bad enough to destroy any credibility of the author. One such instance is
“I shall be a carrion monster, he whispered into the coral shell of her ear, an organ of women he found unspeakably moving in its soft, whirling vortex, and which always seemed to him an invitation to adventure. He very softly kissed her lobe.”
There are a plethora of instances when sentences like these appear and disturb the trance which otherwise engulfs the reader. It is a book that poses many questions and provides an insight into many different perspectives. The voices stand out, the pain is felt, and the book proves to be well worth the effort it took. The two halves of The Narrow Road To The Deep North observe a change in tone and pace, while the first part moves slowly with a lot of contemplative thoughts that possess the characters, it’s the latter half of the book that seems to resonate deeply. “Richard Flanagan’s novel is in equal parts poetic and brutal, juxtaposing the horrors of war with the ravages of love to examine the emotions that entwine the two. Flanagan’s gut-wrenching and intensely visceral camp scenes make this novel stand out, along with his examination of how people are capable of sadism – he imbues his Japanese characters with a complexity not often achieved in war fiction.”
Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road To The Deep North. London: Random House. 2013.
Paz, Aleesha. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Reading Australia, 13 Sept. 2016, readingaustralia.com.au/lesson/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north/.