Beware Richard Flanagan’s new novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” His story about a group of Australian POWs during World War II will cast a shadow over your summer and draw you away from friends and family into dark contemplation the way only the most extraordinary books can. Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” has shaken me like this — all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation.
A finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, “The Narrow Road to the Deeper North” portrays a singular episode of manic brutality: imperial Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in the early 1940s. The British had long investigated this route, but they deemed the jungle impenetrable. Once the Japanese captured Burma, though, its army needed a more efficient resupply route, and so the impossible became possible in just over a year by using some 300,000 people as disposable labor. Flanagan’s late father was a survivor of that atrocity, which took the lives of more than 12,000 Allied prisoners.
“I had known for a long time that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing,” Flanagan said recently. “Other novels came and went as I continued to fail to write this one.” Those “other novels” that he refers to so modestly include his 2001 masterpiece, “Gould’s Book of Fish,” which also dealt with the unfathomable abuse of prisoners. But the horrors of that story about a 19th-century convict kept in a partially submerged cage in Tasmania were leavened by ribald humor and a style so lush that the sentences seemed to send tendrils off the pages, which were printed in several different colors. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” sports none of that dazzling showmanship. Its magic is darker and more subtle, its impact more devastating. Here, Flanagan is writing about events that outstrip surrealism. His quiet, unrelenting style is often unbearably powerful. Not just an enlivened historical documentary or a corrective to Pierre Boulle’s “The Bridge over the River Kwai,” this is a classic work of war fiction from a world-class writer.
The story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. He loved a woman once, but tragedy intervened, and since then each new award and commendation only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent. “The more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it,” Flanagan writes. “Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” Asked to write the introduction to a collection of once-contraband sketches by one of the servicemen imprisoned with him in Siam, he begins to recall the experiences of that hellacious period.
Flanagan has always bent time to his art in the most captivating ways. His first novel, “Death of a River Guide,” played out the history of Tasmania in the few minutes it takes a man to drown. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” has a more complex, impressionistic structure as it moves fluidly forward and backward, changing perspectives and locales, keeping us mesmerized but never confused. For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him.
But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind. As more senior captured officers succumb to disease, Dorrigo finds himself placed in command of 700 sickly prisoners who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving, whose needs he always put before his own.” (This character bears some resemblance to the Australian war hero Col. Edward “Weary” Dunlop.) The hospital tent, equipped only with rags and saws, is a theater of magical thinking and unfathomable gore. During one operation scene, I confess that I forced my eyes down the page in a blur.
What stretches the story beyond the visceral pain it brings to life is the attention paid to these men as individuals, their pettiness and their courage, their acts of betrayal and affection, and their efforts to cling to trappings of civilization no matter how slight or futile. The greatest burden and the one most affectingly portrayed is Dorrigo’s moral conundrum: Every morning he begins bargaining with his Japanese captors, who insist that dying for the emperor is an honor sufficient to raise his men from the “shame” of being captured. Dorrigo must select the healthiest prisoners for that day’s crushing labor. But his men — “like a muddy bundle of broken sticks” — are starving, suffering from cholera, and, in the never-ending rain, their ulcer-covered bodies are rotting away. The ceaseless torture described here is strikingly uncreative: no water boarding, no electrodes, nothing from the Dick Cheney Handbook for Liberators. Instead, the prisoners are simply kicked to death or beaten with bamboo poles to bloody mush. Dorrigo must strive to save each one, knowing that, ultimately, he can’t rescue any of them and that their deaths here in the jungle in service to an insane ambition mean nothing and will quickly be forgotten.
Among the novel’s most daring strategies is its periodic shift to the Japanese and Korean guards’ points of view — both during and long after the war. Flanagan pulls us right into the minds of these men raised on emperor worship, trained in a system of ritualized brutality and wholly invested in the necessity of their cause. It’s a harrowing portrayal of the force of culture and the way twisted political logic inflated by religious zeal can render obscene atrocities routine, even necessary. The novel doesn’t exonerate these war criminals, but it forces us to admit that history conspired to place them in a situation where cruelty would thrive, where the natural responses of human kindness and sympathy were short-circuited. And in its final move, the story makes us confront the conundrum of evil men who later become kind and gentle under the cleansing shower of their own denial. How infinite are our ways of absolving ourselves, of rendering our crimes irrelevant, of mitigating the magnitude of others’ pain.
Ultimately, though, the tale belongs to Dorrigo, whose heroism is never sufficient to satisfy his own ideals. His ordeal as “part of a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king” seems the kind of psychic injury that never heals, but Flanagan insists that the real source of the doctor’s chronic despair is the loss of his one true love. That’s a mystery spun here in prose as haunting and evocative as the haiku by 17th-century Japanese poet Basho that gives this novel its title. No other author draws us into “the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings” the way Flanagan does.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews run in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH
By Richard Flanagan
Knopf. 334 pp. $26.95