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Richard Flanagan sorts suffering from virtue


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Random House Australia, September 2013

Book Cover - The Narrow Road to the Deep North


Winning the prestigious Man Booker prize has given Richard Flanagan’s 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North  precious new shelf life.

If we needed an excuse to get our hands on the book, then let the Booker be it. I’ve long considered Flanagan an alchemist – giving everyday words an unmistakable verve and turning a phrase until it takes flight. But he’s also a proud Tasmanian storyteller who now has the world’s ear. And we’re all the better for it.

It’s 1943 and in the dense jungle of a Japanese POW camp on the infamous Thai-Burma railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans – modelled loosely on Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop – struggles to save the men under his command from starvation, disease and daily beatings.

Like most interesting literary heroes, Evans is flawed. Not only does he resignedly stand by while one of his own is beaten to a pulp. Before the war he entered an adulterous affair with his uncle’s young wife, and the encounter left him weak and yearning. 

Still, it’s not only the Japanese captors who throw themselves into the 'immediate practical worries of tomorrow’s railway building'. In fact, the line between prisoner and captor is as muddied as the landscape. 

We soon learn that Evans’s counterpoint – the menacing commanding Japanese officer Nakamura – is as tethered to the 'reassuring, comforting ideas of duty and the Emperor and the Japanese nations', as the prisoners are to their metaphorical chains.

But The Narrow Road is so much more than a history or cultural lesson. It is based on the experiences of Flanagan’s POW father, who somehow survived the horrors (and who died aged 98 on the day the book was completed). This is a work of poetry patiently gleaned from long-suppressed memories. 

Like the 17th century Japanese haiku poet Basho, who lends the novel its title  – and underlying themes of atrocity and beauty – Flanagan strives for a glimpse of  'eternity in the transient world'. 

Perhaps that is why, for all the darkness, The Narrow Road is also a novel of hope and redemption. It’s a 'blinding light' that accompanies Dorrigo Evans’s first-ever memory of 'toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women… Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.' 

Even during the abject punishment of the almost saintly Darky Gardiner, Evans’s thoughts wander to the notion of mateship and sacrifice. 'Suffering is not a virtue, nor does it make virtue, nor does of it virtue necessarily flow… Virtue is virtue and, like suffering, it is inexplicable, irreducible, unintelligible.' 

To that, perhaps, we can also add inexorable. Yet while suffering is rooted in the physical world, virtue lies just beyond it; somewhere in the infallible darkness where an unmistakable light burns. 


That’s also a good word, Jen, for the conflicted Dorrigo Evans’ acceptance of life. Like the young boys lining up for the ‘kick to kick’ that Flanagan captures so vividly, his impromptu, gallows-humoured burial parties, or his summer-loving swimmers all strung out in a row to pursue the next wave, The Narrow Road stalks anticipated inevitabilities.

In dealing, effectively, with big, weighty themes, Flanagan reveals a partly tamed mystery. This talented author brings to bear the ‘known unknownness’ of life, if you will.

This comes through the furtive, sweaty, obsessive élan of affairs, and the exhilaration of consummation; the emptiness of societal roles, aspirations and expectations; the pointlessness of cruelty, warfare and tribalism.

Along his laurel-laden way, Flanagan has also picked up a nomination for the ‘literary review bad sex in fiction award’ (to be announced on 3 December). Even there, he’s in decidedly prominent company, alongside the likes of Haruki Murukami, Wilbur Smith, et al.

It’s a salient recognition, too, re the alternate ‘Weary D’ figure – and, yes, Flanagan draws from the real and the imagined. Beyond the eyewitness accounts of atrocities from sources such as Dunlop’s war diaries, beyond the exotica of James Clavell’s King Rat, and doubtless drawn from his father’s flesh and blood recall, Flanagan captures the central premise of the bushido-driven Japanese captors and their hapless Allied prisoners – in the absence of an interventionist God, human beings are called upon to hold ourselves to account.

The excuse was welcome, Jen; Flanagan captures something of the human spirit; transcending past evils, poetic rationalisations, truths, guilts, or our ‘public selves’. Perhaps this happy knack is what drives his writing – and our reading.

Upon his Man Booker win, Flanagan said that ‘novels are life, or they are nothing’. If – as I suspect – that’s truly so, in how they transport, guide and challenge us, then The Narrow Road is best received as a life-affirming, soul-enlarging force.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fairfax Media, The Herald Sun and The Australian. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Richard Flanagan, Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road, book reviews



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Existing comments

I finished reading this book shortly before the Man Booker prize was announced and was hoping for a win for Flanagan. I knew nothing about the other books! I can say that this book was a privilege to read, it's extraordinary and I don't think The Guardian was over the top in describing it as 'a masterpiece'. Flanagan took a number of years to write this work - blood, sweat and tears. Thank you Richard Flanagan.

Pam | 20 November 2014  

Whilst this is an excellent novel and well deserving of the Booker, it should be remembered that it is a work of fiction. Richard Flanagan was not there. This is a reflection on life and on part of Australian history - a part that is being rediscovered by the current generation in series like the excellent "Australia's Secret Heroes" recently shown on SBS TV. I find this real stuff, particularly the way it was done, by getting relatives of Z Force members to experience the training their forbears underwent and to learn something of their history, both eye opening and humbling. For a different view of life in Changi from someone who was religious but not a prig, which helped him through, one could do no better than the late Lieutenant-Colonel Fred West's autobiography "From Darjeeling to Down Under". Colonel West was in a Gurkha Regiment and knew several Australians, including medics. As far as I am aware, he doesn't mention Weary Dunlop, but does mention several Australians with immense respect. I wonder what Weary's response to the book up there would be? That is the $64,000.00 question.

Edward Fido | 21 November 2014  

And another thing, the conventional wisdom that 'virtue and suffering are inexplicable'. I was volunteering in an asylum in the70's during a strike, faced with the overwhelming chaos I asked God why this, from the burning bush I heard the words 'so that my glory may be revealed'.

Nev Hunt | 21 November 2014  

The author was asserting that God is not evident in adversity. This isn't borne out by those present. My uncle was an offsider to Weary Dunlop and I sat through many conversations between him and my father (9th Div) where they would hallow the intervention of God in the hell of Burma and Tobruk. Neither ostensibly religious, but knowing where they stood in his presence.

Nev Hunt | 21 November 2014  

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