In the spring of 1689, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho embarked on a journey that would form the basis of his most famous work: Oku no Hosomichi Where The narrow road to the deep north. The haibun – a combination of prose and haiku – is one of the greats of classical Japanese literature and tells of his wandering of Edo (now Tokyo) in the interior of the country and the difficulties he encountered there.
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan not only took the title Basho for his 2014 novel Man Booker, but also imbued his work with some of the precision and Zen meditations of his predecessor. The novel examines the plight of Australian prisoners of war at the hands of their Japanese captors during the construction of the Death Railway in Burma during the closing years of World War II. His embrace of the beauty and poetry of this and other works of Japanese literature, while examining the obscurity of the historical moment, shows how much Flanagan’s art is attuned to complexities, ironies cosmic and vast human frailties at play.
Dorrigo Evans, a young Australian surgeon awaiting deployment, visits his uncle Keith, who runs the King of Cornwall pub on the coast near Adelaide. There, he begins an affair with Keith’s much younger wife, Amy, which, though brief, marks him for the rest of his life.
Two years later, Dorrigo is the head of an Australian prisoner of war camp deep in the dripping teak forests of Siam. He fights against the barbarity of nature and the Japanese guards to keep his men alive as cholera, famine and blows take them away. In the jungle, every man clings to something like the hope of crossing, and the novel traces Dorrigo’s journey to hell and not quite back because later a war hero, he tries to reconcile this which he did as the “Big Fella” of the camp with his failures and extra-marital infidelities after the war.
Flanagan is one of Australia’s best novelists. Since its ambitious beginnings, Death of a river guide (1997), long flashback recounting the life of a man at the time of his drowning, in Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Award, at Want to (2008), which told the parallel stories of Charles Dickens and an Aboriginal girl adopted by the colonial governor of Van Diemen’s Land, it produced original and deeply thought-out novels.
The narrow road to the deep north is no different. It is imbued with poetry: verse from “Ulysses” and Catullus by Tennyson – “The suns when they sink may rise again, / But we, when our brief light has shone, / Must sleep the long night again and again” – to sit next to gem- like the haiku offering nuggets of worked wisdom like that of the poet Issa: “A world of dew / and in every drop of dew / a world of struggle.
Questions about love and death, guilt and memory, both individual and collective, and what is left of us after we die, loom large. “Memory is real justice, sir,” a POW tells Dorrigo as they debate whether to burn or save a prisoner’s sketchbook filled with images of the cruelties inflicted. Dorrigo isn’t so sure. Meanwhile, the camp commander, Major Nakamura, and a visiting officer, Colonel Kota, quote exquisite poems to each other as Kota shares his desire for beheading. It is clear that art offers no protection against the darker elements of human nature.
Flanagan’s father survived the Death Railroad and – a note tells us – died the day Flanagan finished writing the novel. At the center of the book is a long heartbreaking section listing a pivotal day in the camp that ends with the death of a prisoner. Here, Flanagan details work, punishment, illness, food, camaraderie, and the spirit of survival. Dorrigo, as the camp medic, sees the worst: “Rows of naked men lay like stick insects dying after a strange swarming, so many cicada pods rising and falling on the woven bamboo.
Yet Australians aren’t the only ones trapped in hell. The Japanese are also suffering. Nakamura is addicted to shabu – a methamphetamine used “to inspire fighting spirits”. And every day is a struggle, a bending of reality and broken bodies to the emperor’s iron will. Flanagan tells his story from several angles: we hear the stories of men as a chorus, and we enter the inner lives of the Japanese and Korean guards, seeing them both as the Australians see them (monsters) and as they see themselves. themselves (men to whom the fate has been bad).
The technique is both dizzying and heartbreaking; a whole life encapsulated in a page or two. “In the end, all that was left was the heat and the rain clouds, and the bugs and the birds and the animals and the vegetation that didn’t know or care. Humans are just one thing among many and all of these things aspire to live, and the highest form of life is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be. bamboo.
Elegantly crafted, measured and without a hint of melodrama, Flanagan’s novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The narrow road to the deep north, by Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus RRP £ 16.99 / Knopf RRP $ 26.95, 464 pages