I have to admit I had never heard of The Narrow Road to the Deep North but it won the Man Brooker Prize in 2014 and is ‘devastatingly beautiful’ according to the quote on the front from the Sunday Times.
The plot weaves backwards and forwards in time; Australian medic Dorrigo Evans was forced to work on the Burma ‘Death Railway’ in a Japanese POW camp where he struggled to protect the men under his command. Now an older man he struggles to connect to the world around him and can’t stop dwelling on the past.
The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country.
Although Dorrigo is the main protagonist the point of view switches from him to other characters; the other POWs, the Japanese and Korean guards, and Amy his uncle’s wife, with whom he has an affair. That’s kinda of a plot spoiler but not really because it says it on the blurb on the back. I’d say that the ‘romance’ of the book is oversold on the back, as most of the action is in the camp.
The sections in the camp, as the men are sick and dying and still forced to work day and night to clear the jungle, are quite compelling. You might say entertaining but in a horrifying way. I wasn’t there of course but it does seem as though Flanagan has done his research.
The title of the book is referenced in an early chapter, when Major Nakamura ( in charge of the railway) talks to his superior Colonel Kota.
They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.
Basho’s poem/essay was written after he traveled 1500 miles into the least industrially developed parts of North Japan, as part spiritual journey and in part to seek the ultimate beauty of Japan. The strength of the Japanese spirit is a theme throughout the book, the driving force behind the railway. I liked the occasional switch up from the Australian POWs to the Japanese guards, and giving some time to their motivations.
For me, the book lost my interest when it dwelled on Dorrigo’s relationship with Amy. Like, you know we’ve all been in love and that…but when you’re burning the bodies of dead soldiers killed by cholera to stop the spread of the disease and you can’t stop thinking about your girlfriend, it just seems like your priorities are a little off…
The book moves on to after the war, with some of the Japanese and Korean guards arrested and hung for war crimes and Australian soldiers returning home unable to cope.
They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases.
It paints a nice (upsetting) picture of that damaging effect of war and slavery. I even found myself feeling sympathy for the guards, despite many of them showing no real remorse, but Flanagan manages to humanise them enough.
Overall I enjoyed the book. Initially I had retuned my ear to the rhythm of the book, and the bits with Amy made me roll my eyes. But it was a thought provoking autumn read.