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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan’s powerful The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in many ways an immense achievement. It took some twelve years to write, during which time he tried a number of different forms for the story, realising each time he had failed, before he settled on the one that appears in the published novel. It was a very personal journey, because his father was one of Weary Dunlop’s POWs on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. For Flanagan, this was a book he always knew he would write. It was the advancing age of his father that finally got it finished; his father survived the war (as well as the cholera he had during his internment), passing away at the age of nearly 99 just after Flanagan had told him he had given the manuscript to his publishers. That this man passed with such poetic timing should perhaps come as no surprise because poetry is one of the foundation stones upon which this fine novel is built.

The title of the novel is the same as haiku master Basho’s epic haibun, and each of the five sections of chapters is proceeded by an epigrammatic haiku that reflects the chapters to come. And those chapters are the prose equivalent of haiku, compact things that generally run for no more than four or so pages, many shorter. Like haiku, they contain multitudes of understanding, depicting human nature at its most loving, needy, compassionate and diabolical.

The story centres on the deeply flawed but magnetic Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, although it fans out to encompass the experiences of other captives as well as their captors, both during their time building ‘the Line’ and after the war. I suspect another author would have told the story of the many solely through one central character’s experience, but Flanagan chooses to branch out beyond the story of Dorrigo. Some readers might find this a little discombobulating, others will appreciate the linking of disparate lives on both sides of the war with the themes of poetry, survival, and what it means to love.

The story opens with Dorrigo as a boy, growing up in Tasmania, his earliest memory of a light-filled church hall. Already we have hints of salvation and its twin: suffering. We also have poetry, for Dorrigo grows up as a bookish lad, and often quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.’

Like Odysseus, Dorrigo will be held captive in a distant land, unable to return to the woman he loves.

The narrative structure is fractured, which seems an apt approach given the way war fractures the lives of its participants and their families. Although generally progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood to old age, there are numerous time slips, with Flanagan taking us forward and back to key moments. One of the early moves is forward, to Dorrigo with his lover Amy, where we get an early reference to Basho’s haibun. Dorrigo recites ‘Ulysses’ to her as he looks ‘to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea …’. It’s a perfect image, and deeply resonant, for that is the road he must travel.

I mentioned survival above, and it is one of the great underlying themes of the novel. As a younger man, Dorrigo goes to the mainland, to Melbourne University, where he studies medicine. Surrounded by the elite, he finds that while he loves his family, he is not proud of them. Their ‘principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.’

For all his flaws, Dorrigo is at his best as the commanding officer of the POWs in the camp. At one point, when desperately hungry, he’s presented with a (contraband) steak by the cook, and although his mouth is flooding with saliva, he refuses to eat it, telling the man to feed it to the sick men in the hospital. He laments the way he is failing his men, as a doctor and a leader. His love for them is absolute.

There are some wonderful characters amongst Dorrigo’s men, including the artist Rabbit Hendricks, Lizard Brancussi, Jimmy Bigelow, Jack Rainbow, the outcast Rooster MacNeice, and Darky Gardener aka the ‘Black Prince’, a man who could got things by trading the black market, even when he’s on the Line.

The horrors are endless, gut-wrenching. Dorrigo ‘persuaded, cajoled and insisted on the officers working, as the ceaseless green horror pressed every harder on their scabies-ridden bodies and groggy guts, on their fevered heads and foul, ulcerated legs, on their perennially shitting arses.’ And these were the officers – the rest suffer even more.

When these horrors have been indelibly inked into our minds, Dorrigo is faced with an impossible dilemma, forced to choose one hundred emaciated souls to march one hundred miles through the jungle to another camp, knowing most will die along the way. Does he send the very sick, or ‘just’ the sick? It’s heartbreaking stuff.

It is here Flanagan does something brave: he makes the leap into the Japanese mindset as an attempt to understand how men can treat other men with such barbarity. We see into the lives of two Japanese commanders, the amphetamine-addicted Nakamura and his evil superior Colonel Kota. To them, the POWs are less than men, had they been Japanese they would have killed themselves because of the shame of being captured. Their purpose now is to serve the Emperor.

It is not just Dorrigo who is placed in impossible situations. Nakamura is placed in one by Kota, who demands more be done in less time. Despite Kota rebuffing Nakamura’s entreaties for more men and machinery, the two bond over Japan’s great destiny, and also over the haiku that reflects the Japanese spirit:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

In lesser hands, the post-war tracing of the captors could have been a mistake. In Flanagan’s hands we get to see the great weight carried by survivors and perpetrators, as well as more disturbing truths, such as that of one Japanese engineer-cum-guard, who says the time he had spent building the railway was the happiest of his life. Such is human nature, sadly.

But it’s not all about the war. It’s also about love in all its guises, be it the love Dorrigo has for his men, the men who he believes he is failing, and the love that burns between Dorrigo and Amy. It also explores love’s darker obsessiveness, ownership, the lies people tell out of spite.

The second section of chapters starts with a haiku from Issa:

From that woman

on the beach, dusk pours out

across the evening waves.

For Dorrigo, everything pours out of Amy, light, love, a hopeless inviolable need. It is a lovely linking of Amy and the waves that carry the narrow road of moonlight across the seas that are calling him. Held while he waits to be shipped off to war, their affair is brief but all consuming.

They meet by chance in Adelaide in late 1940 at a book store (where Max Harris is launching Angry Penguins!). They are instantly, magnetically, attracted to each other. The meeting is brief, a few minutes of talking about poetry (and penguins), with no names exchanged. But he meets her again at his uncle Keith’s pub. For yes, Amy is married to Dorrigo’s uncle, many years her senior. And while nothing happened in this next meeting, ‘everything had changed.’

The same is true for Amy. She seems to seek oblivion in it, in them. For her, love ‘is not goodness, and nor is it happiness. … It was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview with Philip Adams, Flanagan said we intone ‘lest we forget’, but we do forget, and quickly. As a counter to this, there are two indelible truths I hold after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. First, the novel is an unforgettable testament to Weary Dunlop’s men and the other countless thousands who lost their lives in the name of the Emperor’s madness. The second is, while built, the railway was soon swallowed by the jungle, whereas the poetry of Basho lives on hundreds of years after his death. As Dorrigo learns, survival is the incredible achievement. (I’ve already dusted off my Basho and dived back into the world of haiku.) Ah, if only there were more poets and fewer warmongers. If only there were more Richard Flanagans.

The only lingering doubt is whether the story could have been even more powerful had it possessed a tighter focus on the one POW rather than fanning out as it does. Some will like it, some will have misgivings. I suspect that as much as Flanagan tried to write a fictional character who was not his father, he could not help but explore how war affects all its participants, not just its famous leaders. In some ways they all travelled on that narrow road together.

It’s hard to believe he has not won the Miles Franklin Award. While Alexis Wright would also be a worthy winner for The Swan Book (my review), this just might be his year.

Flanagan is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which starts next week. I’ve got my ticket, so expect some additional musings on The Narrow Road over the coming weeks. You can also listen to that discussion between Flanagan and Philip Adams here (about 52 minutes from memory, and well worth it).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

2013

Vintage

467 pages

ISBN: 9781741666700

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Confession time: every time I start to read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury I get bogged down part way in and pick up something else to read.  I then came across a viewpoint somewhere suggesting that for those readers who are put off by Faulkner’s heavy style, As I Lay Dying was the best place to start, an easier initiation if you will.  And I have to say thank-you to whoever wrote that because I was in part mesmerised by this story and how it’s told.  If you think multiple protagonist and/or multiple points-of-view (POV) is a more recent invention then think again.  Faulkner uses fifteen different narrators, each in first person, some of whom employ small sections of stream-of-consciousness.  There’s a little settling in required, but once comfortable, I found it quite a feat.  The voices are earthy and redolent of the deep south of America in which the book is set, each of them providing us with a slightly different slant on the story to which they are a party to, even if just for one brief encounter.  (Without giving anything away, the single chapter narrated by MacGowan, who serves one of the main characters, Dewey Dell, in a chemist store, is powerful and heart-rending stuff.)

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  Let’s have a look at the story.  The Bundrens are poor farmers in Mississippi.  The calculating and vengeful Addie Bundren is dying.  Her husband, the very proud Anse, (surely he gives Mr Darcy a run for his prideful money?), has given his word to bury her with her people back in Jefferson.  Outside Addie’s window, Cash, one of her sons, is sawing wood for her coffin.  The first few chapters go on like this, with Cash sawing, Addie slowly dying, and Anse looking out over the land and rubbing his knees, (and wishing for a new set of teeth to boot!).  Meanwhile, a picture of the family slowly builds, with Darl and Jewel and the young Vardamon all brothers to Cash, and Dewey Dell, their sister.  Darl is quite prominent in these early chapters.

When Addie dies, Darl and Jewel are off earning a few bob making a delivery for a neighbour, Mr Tull.  They see their mother is dead on their return in the buzzards circulating over the farm.  The family set off on a road trip to get Addie to Jefferson but encounter several delays along the way, including a harrowing flood scene wherein they lose the team of mules pulling the wagon, and nearly lose the coffin.  All the while the buzzards grow in number.

It’s only 248 pages but there’s so much going on in this family: affairs, sexual relationships, unwanted pregnancies, revenge-seeking, favouritism, and deep scepticism in some, particularly Darl, about their seemingly mad undertaking, (so-to-speak).  There are disasters and near disasters.  There are falling outs and all sorts of shenanigans.  Poor little Vardamon is so traumatised by his mother’s death, he equates her to a fish, leading to the famous line (and very short whole chapter), in which he narrates: “My mother is a fish.”  Darl tries to end the journey by burning down a barn in which they store their mother’s reeking coffin one night – which lands him in some very, very hot water.  And no matter what the dour Anse does, he seems to have some strange hold over all his brood.

There is one chapter from the POV of Addie who lies dead in her coffin.  It is either her talking from beyond the grave, or we have jumped back in time to hear her deathbed thoughts on family, her unloving relationship with Anse, the way she favours some of her children over others, as well as other insights.

There are some wonderful sentences.  Take this description of the flooding river as the boys try to drive the wagon across: [p128]:

[The river] clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules’ knees, yellows, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse.   

And this description of Addie’s dying eyes, p39:

Only her eyes seem to move.  It’s like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.

In fact, the eyes of all the characters are described with unerring deliberation throughout.

If there is one fault with the novel it is in what Hemmingway derisorily termed Faulkner’s penchant for using ‘ten-dollar words’.  There was a good feisty feud between the authors on the question of fancy words.  Hemmingway, not surprisingly, wasn’t a fan.  He wrote, ‘Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?  He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.  I know them all right.  But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’  (Both Faulkner and Hemmingway won the Nobel Prize.)

Now, I like ten-dollar words, but when you’re using first-person narration and the characters are poor rural farmers from the 1930s Mississippi, these kind of words don’t fit.  Faulkner can’t help himself.  Take this moment when little Vardamon is narrating, [p51], and compare the simplicity of the opening words with the ones that follow:

It is dark.  I can hear wood, silence: I know them.  But not living sounds, not even him.  It is though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is

There is also a moment where Dewey Dell, who has trouble communicating the serious trouble she is in, uses in her narration the word ‘stertorous’* to describe a cow’s breathing — a word so unusual and erudite that Microsoft Word thinks I’ve misspelled it!

Darl’s narration is full of ten-dollar words —‘proscenium’ and ‘portière’** anyone? — but at least his articulate nature is consistent.

Despite this minor quibble, the book soars.  It explores the great existential questions, of what it means to be.  Faulkner says it was written in just six weeks and he didn’t change a word, and if either or both of those claims are true, it’s simply miraculous.  The characters will stay long in the memory.

The book has inspired many others, including Graham Swift’s Booker Prize winning Last Orders, which I highly recommend.  Those of us in Australia will recognise the “My mother is a fish” quote from the start of the beguiling Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.  There are many others, as well as authors who call Faulkner a key influence.  I remember Peter Carey for instance eulogising on Faulkner.  Now I can see why.  Bring on The Sound and the Fury!

* Stertorous: from stertor: ‘a heavy snoring sound in respiration’.

** Proscenium: in short, ‘the stage of an ancient theatre’.

** Portiere: ‘a heavy curtain hung across a doorway.’

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Vintage

1935

ISBN: 9780099479314

248 pages

Source: the local municipal library

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