We are the creature who reflects on his own suffering. This is perhaps the only difference to note between us and the rest of the animal world.
We can endlessly mount expeditions to understand why unnecessary cruelty is inflicted on some but not others – or, to be more precise, why war not only exists but repeats itself over and over again – yet the question of arrival. remains open. This eternal quest leads through particularly hellish territory in The narrow road to the deep north. And when deep in the literal and figurative jungle of the novel, we reach the heart of darkness, it is empty. Australian author Richard Flanagan (“Gould’s Book of Fish”) did not write fiction so much as a philosophical inquiry with characters; its stock is distinctly Nietzschean. After recounting what appears to be every minute of the long life of a certain Dorrigo Evans, an officer and medic who survived the callous brutality suffered by thousands of his fellow Australian prisoners of war forced to build the so-called path iron from the death of Bangkok across Burma in 1943, Flanagan gives us only one conclusion: nihilism in its purest essence. The story of Evans, his men, their agony and the Japanese commanders who brought it upon them offers a dizzying view of “the terrible perfection of suffering and knowledge that has made a fully human being.”
It’s a terrible thought, but one that also becomes beautiful in Flanagan’s meticulous work. His literary method is like an auger spinning through rock and soil: patient, insistent, aiming at the buried carrot. From the start, it’s clear we’ll have plenty of time to witness all that happens to young men in war: wrapped up for their fate in sweat boxes of freight wagons. “They were men like other young people, unknown to themselves. So much was in them that they were now traveling to meet them.
There are perception lines like this printed, not just literally, on every page. Flanagan is such a deeply observant writer that every other sentence manages to be compact and expansive at the same time. If that sounds like the definition of poetry, it should. The book is in almost every aspect (including the compressed language) an epic in the classic formulation, that is, a long tale recounting the heroic journey of an individual or group. The novel’s deviations from the rules of form are intended to serve its philosophical ends: Dorrigo Evans is not so much an anti-hero as a complicated and imperfect hero, peculiar to the Dostoevskian drift of the book. Thus, he cites very early not the epic of Homer, but the dark and nuanced “Ulysses” of Tennyson, in which the traveler is sent home, his quest in old age to return in some way or another. another in the past, even as it comes back to him. And so Flanagan puts Evans in private conflict, a womanizer who questions the very possibility of love; a leader who is admired by his men, called the Big Fella himself, but internally tormented by the fear that he is guilty of not protecting and saving more. (Of course, he only faced the devil’s markets in the camp, a thousand diseases assaulting them on one side and overseers with a supreme grip of sadism on the other, men dying like flies for lack of of food and medicine.) years, the suspicion that a brilliant take in high school rugby might have been the pinnacle of his life.
The horrific suffering of the prisoners is almost rendered with love, from the graphic effects of dysentery to the unbalanced demeanor of a guard known as Goanna, and whether Flanagan makes it a little thick or if he has simply portrayed the truth no one other than a survivor might say. The story of the railway line built to supply the Japanese army massed in Burma, at the cost of untold human lives, was the basis of David Lean’s great film “The Bridge over the River Kwai, “ itself based on a fictional story by prisoner Pierre Boulle. One of the many themes here is “the indomitable Japanese spirit” that camp commanders (in unconvincing internal monologues) use to reassure themselves of their righteousness. It’s the kind of nationalist propaganda that all prisons are made from, the cover for brutality beyond imagination.
And poetry underlies everything. This book is saturated with it, as much as it is. The characters reflect on it – in bed with a lover, before beheading someone with a sword – as the author deploys it in a superimposed fashion. “Lest we forget – that we forget! Kipling likes the theme of remembrance as final justice. The character of the protagonist is enlightened by his taste for the conservative canon, including Browning. The title of the novel comes from Bashō, the great Japanese master of 17th-century haiku, and finely crafted copies of the form make it an elegant gallery. Art in the midst of suffering; the art of suffering.
Flanagan asks big questions with such stealth that we seem to find them by surprise in our own thoughts. And so we are shaken to realize how easily we had accepted the convention of the lover of poetry as sweet and insightful, morally superior. In a feat of literary inventiveness, Flanagan uses an appreciation for haiku as a psychic bridge between ostensibly opposed natures; the cruel kidnappers and their main prisoner are sensitive to her high resistance beauty. In doing so, the author asks if they can then truly be mortal enemies, or if, in a mirror world, the beaten captive would take revenge as inhumanly as he once received.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is a lot at once. An epic that denies itself. A war story and also (by convention, yes) a love story: this is how we appreciate more deeply the suffering of soldiers, when we have seen them before expressing tender affection. He’s not perfect, even though he received a spot on the Man Booker Prize nominee list. (The excess rhetoric disrupts two climactic scenes and, more unforgivably, makes a villain an archetype of the villain; archetypes are the death of fiction.) But he dares the big reveal. What people do to each other, good and bad, “just is.” There is no reason. There is no cause, no blame, and most importantly, no understanding. They make love, they brutalize. All of this is inexplicable. Nihil is, said Flanagan. And it’s not nothing.