Flanagan’s novel of Australian soldiers in World War Two is well-written. I wouldn’t say too well-written but the detail of certain horrors it describes is hard to take. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so physically ill while reading a novel before. Reading this was often like someone – Flanagan, I suppose – holding my hand to a hot stove. Painful and impossible to pull away.
The novel centres around the character of Dorrigo Evans. Evans is born into poverty in rural Tasmania but manages to escape the cycle and become a doctor and a soldier in the Second World War. (A flaw of the book is that we jump forward in time from Evans’ childhood to the war where he is already a doctor but it’s never explained how a poor child without education made that leap.) While in training, Evans meets the woman who will become his wife. He also meets a vivacious, beautiful young woman whom he is linked to in an unexpected way.
Shortly into his overseas placement, Evans is taken prisoner by the Japanese and he spends the rest of the war in a jungle prison camp, forced to build a railway for the Japanese Empire through dense undergrowth, in horrific conditions. The Australian prisoners are starved and beaten, suffering from cholera and malaria, tasked with an impossible goal, even if they weren’t all slowly dying.
…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.
Evans’ time as a POW is only a section of the novel but it’s certainly the most vivid and it is what forms his entire life, as well as the reader’s experience. Flanagan doesn’t shy away from the physical brutality of this experience. It’s hard to read. I understood better than ever before why survivors of such trauma would want to never speak of it, never think back on such a horrific experience. And, by and large, I feel that there has not been much discussion of the Japanese POWs in literature. World War Two is a topic broadly covered in 20th and 21st century English literature and the European experience has a lot of fiction and non-fiction writing on it. I’m less familiar with the stories that Flanagan lays bare and, perhaps, that’s why the book felt so raw and shocking to me. It’s hard to say I would want to hear or read more about it, but discussion and writing are an important part of acknowledging history. And recovering from it. As the book itself points out, to this day the Japanese government has made no formal acknowledgement or apology for its human rights violations of POWs.
There is a lot of death in this novel but, somehow, Evans survives. Carrying all that weight and guilt, he returns to Australia and falls into a life with the woman he left behind. The book begins and ends with him as an old man, where he has achieved a certain amount of fame as a survivor of the prison camp.
Flanagan doesn’t romanticize the prisoners in any way. There is no hidden beauty or nobility here. They help each other survive more through primal need and superstition than any innate human goodness. The glimpses Flanagan gives into the lives and thoughts of the Japanese soldier – their commander who knows that if he falls in the impossible task set out in building the railway, he must commit suicide rather than go home in shame, for example – create a greater depth but don’t make us more sympathetic to them.
To the contrary, Dorrigo Evans understood himself as a weak man who was entitled to nothing, a weak man whom the thousand were forming into the shape of their expectations of him as a strong man. It defied sense. They were captives of the Japanese and he was a prisoner of their hope.
Evans, who emerges as a leader among the men in the camp – both because of his officer status and a certain natural quality – is a deeply flawed character. His behaviour both before and after the war is not admirable and he seems to know this about himself. It is a guilt and a shame – along with that of being a survivor – that follow him for the rest of his life, although he does little to change his actions. It’s a fascinating portrait and a bold choice by Flanagan.
While I would definitely recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I would caution the reader to know what you’re embarking on. This is a glimpse into the abysmal horrors of humanity. It’s not an easy thing to take in but it is important.