This is also published on my Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1575309304
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the 2014 Booker winning novel by Australian author Richard Flanagan and talks about the experiences of a group of Australian POW’s from the hundreds of thousands who were forced into virtual slavery to build the infamous Burma Death Railway, which Imperial Japan wanted to construct through the seemingly impenetrable jungles between Thailand and Burma during World War 2. The task was deemed almost impossible by the Allied powers, but Japan saw in it a way to increase their tactical advantage and to show the might of their empire to the world and decided to use their numerous POW’s of various nationalities to build it in different camps under hellish conditions. The title comes from famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s most famous work of the same name. The author has a personal connection to this atrocity, as his father was one of the survivors of this Death Railway.
The central protagonist here is Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon in the Australian army, and in the absence of other options, the de facto commander of the Australian POW’s in his camp. Betrothed to what he considered a suitable lady from a good family, he ends up getting into an affair with his uncle’s wife before the war and is haunted by his memories of her and what could have been. In the camp, he forces himself to concentrate on making life even a little bit easier for the people under his command, though it all seems pretty futile. The slaves are starving, diseased and most unable to even walk normally, yet are forced into the construction by the Japanese commanders and their officers. Most swayed by the sense of honor which they feel achieving the task for their emperor will entail. As more and more men fall wasted and dead in the pursuit of an almost pointless task, the story attempts to humanize these faceless and forgotten victims of an unforgiving war and also, admirably, tries to empathize with both the Japanese officers and the guards under them. There is a touching dedication at the beginning of the book to a certain prisoner number, which appears to be his father. Poignantly, Flanagan’s father died on the day the novel was completed.
All the ingredients appear to be lined up for an epic read, but somewhere down the line I found myself not completely into it. The war descriptions and the pathetic conditions of the POW’s, and the misplaced sense of honor of the ones driving them are captured with graphic intensity and raw, gritty horror. The makeshift operations Dorrigo has to perform on those wasting away or dying is written in crude and excruciating details, including a scene where he performs an amputation with a handsaw. The conditions of prisoners suffering from various diseases like cholera, pellagra, and others resulting from nutrient and vitamin deficiencies and the general sense of brotherhood under their shared horror is masterfully and brutally depicted and will linger in the mind. However, it is the parts away from this field of war that I was less convinced by. Why do literary authors always have a tendency to make their heroes into womanizers, sleeping with every other woman to get away from themselves, even when they seem the least likely of lady magnets, as in Dorrigo’s case here? Sometimes it almost seems like personal fantasies are being played out. Dorrigo supposedly sleeps around to get away from an inscrutable feeling of survivor’s guilt and shame he feels at being made into a war hero, and also to escape from the ghosts of his failed love affair, while being married to the aforementioned good lady. The initial meeting and attraction between Dorrigo and his amour is itself not very convincing, and their love affair never seems to warrant the lifelong misery the protagonists’ later wallow in. This could have been a just as good, maybe even better, book without this angle. This might be a reason why, among recent war books I’ve read, I would place something like Sebastian Barry’s account of World War 1 – A Long, Long Way – on a bit of a higher pedestal than this.
But I still recommend it though. This is a hugely important book which attempts to bring some sort of relevance and memory to those thousands of dead soldiers whose lives were snuffed out while their empires chased impossible ideologies with little concern to the men they were sending out to kill and to be killed. And his depictions of this horror against humanity have been uncompromisingly captured and will make sure you won’t forget about it very soon.