The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


I’m usually interested in novels that won the Booker Prize, but not always, and based on its description, I wasn’t too interested in this novel. Then I saw a physical copy of it in a book shop, and I was mesmerized by its cover. Isn’t this a beautiful cover? I think it is, so I bought the book and read it.

And I have mixed feelings. The oft-quoted phrase from reviews that this is a devastatingly beautiful novel is mostly true. And besides beauty, it contains a lot of brutality, humanity and inhumanity, lots of coincidences, and a fair amount of pondering about sin, guilt, fate, historical and personal traumas, and whether there are real choices in life, and if so – whether there are good choices.

Partly – this is a very strong novel. The author’s personal stake in the events he describes is heart-breakingly obvious (Richard Flanagan’s father was a prisoner of war during World War II, and he worked on the Burma Railway), and it’s also painfully obvious that Flanagan deeply understands how war traumas shape the lives of both the people who undergo those traumas, and the lives of the next generations. And all this is grave and unsettling, and I think that – just like out of everything else – it is possible to create literature out of it. One thing I’m not sure about, though, is whether it’s necessary to shove all the trauma and brutality into my face so extremely hard. More on this later, but now a little bit about the story.

The main character is Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor getting ready to serve his country in World War II. While he’s getting prepared for war, he hastily engages a woman – with whom marriage would be more than advantageous socially – and parallel to this, he embarks on a mad, desperate, burning affair with a married woman – an affair that’s condemned to death from its first moment, an affair that will shape Dorrigo’s life forever after because – in hindsight – it turns out to be the one single real thing in his life – that short period when things actually meant something.

I don’t intend to spoil anything here – the novel isn’t entirely linear, and it contains a lot of flashbacks and foreshadowings, so we learn it quite early on that society, conventions, and war can seriously hinder even the world’s most beautiful romance. (I don’t have the necessary sensitivity to write about this in more beautiful words – Flanagan does a much better job here than I do.)

The hopeless but life-changing affair is then pushed into the background besides the main theme of the novel. Dorrigo becomes a POW in the war, and together with thousands of other Australian and other POWs, he’s moved to the hell of the jungle where POWs are forced to work on the Burma Railway. Dorrigo is – let’s say – fortunate: he served as a doctor in the war, and he serves as a doctor even as a POW. He’s an observer, and his job mainly consists of trying to alleviate all the suffering, sickness, and brutality that is the daily lot of all the POWs building the railroad.

The majority of the novel is about this: the description of the experiences of the POWs, the ever-increasing horror with the end nowhere in sight – that horror which slowly grinds up everyone both mentally and physically. And then there’s a key scene in the novel, which strongly reminds me of a similar scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: that scene where – after countless foreshadowings – it turns out that one of the characters, who was shot on the thigh and complains about freezing to death, in fact sustains another wound, too – and even though the shot in his thigh might not be fatal, that other wound will surely be. Something similar happens here – something unbelievably brutal, something unavoidable, something irreparable, something against which you cannot fight – something that cannot be stopped once it has started. It is extremely harrowing. And it is – perhaps – a turning point. Or rather: it’s a point from where it’s not possible to make things any more intense.

And yes, the war suddenly comes to an end, and everyone returns to his life: some go back home as heroes, some as soldiers of a defeated empire, and some face prosecution as war criminals. The only certainty is that the war left a mark on everyone – and Flanagan looks at these marks, too. I like the basic idea here, and I’m certainly affected by the way Flanagan examines the minds of different Korean, Japanese, and Australian survivors, and the way he analyzes (tries to analyze) what different persons (the so-called good and the so-called bad) felt during the war, what motivated them, what kept them alive, and how they could act exactly the way they acted. The conclusion here, if I’m not mistaken, is that everyone’s a victim in a war – but I’m not sure if this isn’t a bit of relativism here. And yes, I admit that the text affects me, but it still comes across as a bit over-explained, and I’m not that fond of having big lessons pushed into my face in such a fashion.

And now back to the too-thick laying of brutality I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The part of the novel set in the POW camp is brutal, shocking and painful beyond belief. And page after page, things get worse. Each day there’s more hunger, more beatings, more sickness, more work, more inhuman daily quotas. And after a while I start to wonder: Can this be made even worse? Is it necessary to make it even worse? Because sure, it’s all right that things happened this way in reality (it’s obviously not all right – but you know what I mean), but things in literature shouldn’t be the way they are just because they happened that way in reality. They should be the way they are because they couldn’t be any other way. And even while reading this novel, I often felt that it would have been better to leave some things unsaid.

And the more time passes, the more I feel this. This could have been a better novel that way.