Of war, grief, love, and other well-known plot devices

While reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North I found myself repeatedly imagining Richard Flanagan walking into his agent’s office and pitching the novel. After my fantasy Flanagan finishes his synopsis of the plot—a rural Australian doctor is captured by the Japanese during World War II, taken into a POW labor camp that is building the ill-fated railway across Burma, before returning to home, and facing all of the complex psychological issues that any survivor of intense trauma faces—Flanagan’s agent sarcastically begins to list all of the novels and films that have covered the same general thematic and historical territory. Flanagan’s agent then tells him it’s a stupid, clichéd book to write, and to find a new plot. Fantasy Flanagan stomps out of the agent’s office, swearing to write his novel. My fantasy then cuts, dramatically, to ten years later: the Man Booker Prize—and the £50,000 prize that goes with it—has just been awarded to one Richard Flanagan. Cut again to the agent’s face, falling in disbelief, as Flanagan’s novel, in montage, flies off the shelves all over the English-speaking world, and begins to be translated into several additional languages as well.

It didn’t happen that way, of course. Flanagan’s agent, whoever s/he might be, was likely perfectly supportive the entire time, and probably spent the twelve years that Flanagan took to write the novel just wishing that he had hurried up a bit. But I like to picture it this way, simply for all of the times I’ve heard the illiterate and the ignorant dismiss a film or a novel as passé. ‘That’s been done,’ or ‘that sounds an awful lot like. . .’ or ‘Proust covered that territory years ago’ says some under-read graduate student at a party where cold-cuts and squares of bland cheese are being served. Likely these people just need the opportunity to tell us how well-read they are; sounding like you’re not easily pleased by new work is a good way to telegraph your own intelligence (or, perhaps, more likely, your screaming insecurity). Flanagan’s novel, to my mind, demonstrates that it’s not the originality of the plot that matters, but how a story is told that determines its ultimate aesthetic success. Flanagan tells us a love story, he tells us a story of war and torture, and he tells us about the grief that follows these events. Along the way, he manages to tell us something about art. Everything in The Narrow Road to the Deep North been done before—even the title is an outright theft—but rarely have these things been done this beautifully.

The novel is a primarily a love story, although the three different love stories of the novel take very different forms, and reminds us of the strange and diverse conditions that love flourishes under. In the opening section of the novel the young doctor Dorrigo Evans falls in love with his uncle’s young wife Amy. Flanagan perfectly describes the contradictory turmoil and transcendence of falling in love, but these richly erotic scenes also serve as a back-drop for the very different kinds of intimacy that follow in the rest of the novel. In the second section of the novel Flanagan overwhelms the reader with grotesque scenes of PoWs building the Burmese railway as slave labor for the Japanese. These scenes deliberately focus on the male body in a way that would otherwise be erotic; in doing so the scenes capture the masculine intimacy that can develop under circumstances of extreme duress. These men love each other, and that love makes the scenes of pestilence, torture, and death excruciating and lovely. In the closing section of the novel, our hero—who has spent his life cheating on the wife he married in fit of traumatic apathy following the war, and largely ignoring the children he has fathered with her—risks his own life to save his small, neglected family from a raging forest fire. As they drive away from the fire, the doctor and his wife find intimacy, arguably for the first time in their decades-long marriage, and the children get a glimpse of the man who is behind the image of the Australian war hero Evans has been turned into. A favorite scene of mine involves a Greek restaurant owner giving an impromptu dinner to a group of recently returned Australian war veterans. I’m not the writer that Flanagan is–I cannot give you all of the details without sounding maudlin–but trust me: Flanagan gorgeously portrays one of those odd, but fated moments in any human life when a perfect stranger gives you exactly the compassion and understanding that you need. Rarely, if ever, do people say ‘I love you,’ in this novel, and yet the story is suffused with scenes of profound love.

Perhaps because the novel is so grounded in love, it also manages to pull off a compassionate glimpse into post-war Japan. Given the subject and setting of much of the novel—the so-called Japanese ‘death railway,’ for which Japanese officers were later tried for war crimes—it would have been easy to fall into the kind of all too easy racism that accompanies quite a bit of war fiction. But the novel also avoids the kind of artistically dead, politically correct antidote to that realism, which inevitably tries to give its readers deeper motivations for the inhuman and sadistic actions of war criminals in an effort to humanize them. Perhaps it was because I’d reread Eichmann in Jerusalem a few weeks before beginning to read this novel, but I couldn’t help but think that Flanagan’s novel was the perfect accompaniment to Arendt’s meditation on the ‘banality of evil.’ The Japanese officers of this novel are victims, but not the victims of abusive parents, or even of an evil overarching ideology. These individual officers are too weak—as are most of us—to do much of anything except survive the current circumstances of their individual lives. In this sense the Japanese torturers and slave drivers share the same emotional space of the Australian PoWs that they were abusing; the war itself is twisting all of these lives beyond recognition. By the time the Americans arrive on stage in the late scenes of the novel and begin to try these Japanese officers for ‘war-crimes,’—shortly after the Americans themselves have dropped atomic weapons on hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants— the very concept of a ‘war-crime’ has been reduced to all of its offensive absurdity.

The novel also returns to one of Flanagan’s great preoccupations, which is the transcendent nature of art itself. The title is borrowed from the great Japanese Edo-era work of haiku and travel writing, and throughout the novel allusions are made to Tennyson’s great dramatic monologue of post-war malaise, “Ulysses.” Within the novel, a PoW draws beautiful cartoons of the railway and the camp where he eventually dies. Poetry is more than mere representation in the novel; it is more than merely a coping technique for these men broken by hellish circumstances. Poetry—and art itself—is human meaning; creative expression renders those executing, embodying, and remembering art more human, more real, rather than the other way around.

The novel has had its detractors. Michael Hoffman, of the London Review of Books thinks that everyone who likes the book has all of the intelligence of a too easily swindled, slightly drunken tourist. His complaint, at least as near as I could discern through the thick, unnecessarily patronizing attitude: Flanagan occasionally tries to write about moments when a character has an emotion and its contradictory emotion (love/hate) at the same time. Also, Hoffman thinks there were too many adjectives and similes. And sometimes the adjectives were—gasp!—in slightly the wrong place. Anthony Grayling, of the Booker committee that gave Flanagan his life-changing prize, argued that Hoffman’s less than generous review must have been written on a ‘bad haemorrhoid day,’ and that Hoffman apparently could not ‘see quality when it hits him in the face.’ I suggest you read the novel for yourself so that you too may take part in the literary war being waged on high by these two gods of English letters, who reach for childish insults and patronizing attitudes first, and reasoned argument, well, apparently, never. Along the way you might just read a fantastic novel.

Nathan Elliott teaches online English courses for a college in Georgia while residing in Newfoundland. He also, occasionally, tries to write.

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