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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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The Swan Book by Alexis WrightWell! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.

Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.

And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.

This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.

Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:

From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.

The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.

There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:

Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.

For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.

It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians  learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’

Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:

… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.

I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.

For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’

The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’  Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.

In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)

Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We shouldawwbadge_2014 have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.

Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!

If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

2013

Giramondo

334 pages

ISBN: 9781922146410

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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