The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
The title of Richard Flanagan’s novel is based on a text by a Japanese poet, Oku no Hosomichi by Matsu Basho; the favourite poem of two Japanese officers whose cruelty to the POW’s exceeds duty to the emperor. My knowledge of what happened whilst building the Burmese railroad is restricted by memories of The Bridge over the River Kwai, in which the courageous behaviour of the British prisoners of war and especially their officers, was shown. And by memories of a famous Dutch comic who till his dying day hated the Japanese for what they put him and his fellow prisoners through while building the rail track. Rightly so, I can only conclude after having finished The Narrow Road. In this novel Flanagan paints a bleak picture of all the atrocities committed by the Japanese and the life long effect starvation, disease and despair have on a group of Australian POW’s. Main character surgeon Dorrigo Evans who in the camp does his utmost to save as many POW’s as he can, fails to connect with people after having returned to Australia. In the first fifty pages or so his remoteness is paralleled by a remoteness in words and sentences. It made me seriously doubt whether I wanted to keep on reading. Then Flanagan changed to WW2 and Birma and all of sudden he had me by the throat. Not only Dorrigo came alive, also his fellow POW’s. A certain kind of comradeship helps the POW’s maintain their humanity, despite the fact that they are all starving, suffer from a multitude of diseases and are made to work in harsh conditions many hours. There is even some sympathy for the Japanese who are brought up believing in the emperor and harsh punishment, just a sliver though. Flanagan in no uncertain terms makes it clear that he abhors the fact that the Japanese, in whose culture hierarchy is eminent, treat the officers better than the plain soldiers – they do not need to work for example – and even more important, the fact that those officers accept their privileges. Dorrigo makes them hand over the money they are given by the Japanese in order to buy food and medicine for the sick POW’s and sets them to work in the camps. Flanagan is as clear about what he thinks of the authorities setting free Japanese officers and war criminals shortly after the war because their knowledge, wealth and companies can be of use to the Allies. This becomes apparent when he describes the fates of two guards: Nakamura and Choi Sang-Min. The first, a major who believes in everything the emperor stands for and keeps on believing this even though he is expected to do the impossible, surviving the hell of Birma on increasing quantities of drugs and treating the POW’s as mere instuments in the war effort, hides from the Allies but realizes after a while that they are not actively searching for high ranking soldiers and is allowed to live a normal life. The second, a poor Korean who has enlisted in order to put food on his family’s table and who finds gratification in cruelty only, is sentenced to death. He asks himself why he is put to death for atrocities committed in the name of the emperor whilst the emperor himself is allowed to live and remain in function.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is at times gruesome, it is certainly not easy to read about the hardships and the atrocities. Still, Flanagan manages to turn the telling of this gruesome part of history in a novel that is beautifully written, at times poetical, at times philosophical. Style, structure and content complement each other perfectly; even the fact that the first and last 50 pages, dealing foremost with the remote and aloof Dorrigo, feel more detached serves a purpose. They make it clear that Dorrigo has been changed in a fundamental way during the war. The Narrow Road is a harrowing novel that deserves to be on the short list of the Man Booker Prize 2014.