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Richard Flanagan sorts suffering from virtue

  • 21 November 2014

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


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