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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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All That I Am by Anna FunderWinner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, All that I Am is a perfect read for the holidays. It is a beautifully written and, for the most part, compelling story based on a real group of leftist and mainly Jewish German dissidents who, from both within Germany and then, later, from exile in the UK in the lead-up to WWII, fought to bring to the attention of the world the rise of tyranny under Hitler.

Told from two points-of-view (POV), it proves the old adage that survivors write history. Ruth Becker, based on Ruth Blatt, a real person who Funder knew, is a survivor. An elderly woman living in Bondi, Sydney in the ‘present day’ of 2002, she’s struggling with what appears to be Alzheimer’s. Recent memories are fading while old memories are coming to the surface. Alloyed to her physical condition is the arrival of an annotated autobiographical manuscript of Ernst Toller’s I was a German.

It is the empty-hearted yet ‘wunderkind’ playwright Toller, a WWI veteran and conscience of the German people, who provides the second POV. He is similarly looking back on past events, more out of a sense of regret at his actions, from New York in 1939. He is re-drafting I was a German, this time including the woman he loved and used to work for him, Ruth’s cousin Dora Fabian, who did so much to save Toller’s work after the Nazis rose to power. He wants ‘to see whether, at this late stage of the game, honesty is possible for me.’ At the end of his first chapter he thinks: ‘I will tell it all. I will bring Dora back, and I will make her live in this room.’

It’s a struggle for Toller. Though he had relationships with other women, he feels only half a man without Dora. In a wonderful image, he compares their love to ‘a carpenter’s spirit level, each of us holding an end up so hard, fighting to keep that trembling bubble alive.’

Dora is the fulcrum around which the other characters pivot. A strategic thinker with a sharp intellect, she’s a no-nonsense woman of incredible bravery. Some readers have suggested her character is almost too idealised. Well, pressure changes people; like a furnace, it burns some, melts some and forges others. And there is no greater pressure than that faced in an unseen war, when freedom is at stake. Dora is forged into a steely operative. Others wilt.

More naïve than Dora, Ruth is married to Hans, a crack reporter who writes scathing satirical articles about Hitler in the German press before the Nazis start to claim the freedoms that we all hold so dear. After a short prologue that sets-up the stakes of the story—retelling the events of the day Hitler is confirmed as the new Chancellor—we find Ruth visiting her doctor in Bondi Junction in 2002. Presented with the possibility of her condition eventually taking her sight, she thinks:

I had very good eyes once. Though it’s another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.

This is a lovely double foreshadowing of what’s to come. Dora and the group do see what’s happening with Hitler, whereas the rest of the world, at least on the surface, doesn’t sense what’s to come. But there is a more personal failing that Ruth’s referring to, a betrayal of their group by one of its members that she didn’t see coming, even when Dora began to voice her suspicions.

We see the ‘emergency’ of the Reichstag fire, arranged by the Nazis, which enabled Hitler to claim totalitarian powers. In its wake is the persecution that ‘sent fifty-five thousand Germans into exile – some two thousand writers and artists among them.’ This exodus predates ‘the mass of Jews [that] came later’, those lucky ones who got out before the extermination camps began to take their heavy toll. Ruth and Hans, Dora and Toller, as well as others are among those who get out, but they leave behind others, including family and friends.

The stakes are gradually raised. Dora continues to receive accurate information from German contacts on the accumulation of arms, components for fighter planes and proof that Hitler is circumventing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which restricts the number of men the German army is allowed. Hitler makes the exiles stateless and poor by decree then begins to send hit-squads after them. There is a cracking scene in which two Nazi operatives come into Dora and Ruth’s flat posing as Scotland Yard detectives replete with a warrant to search their home. Their presentation, accents and documentation make Ruth believe their story. Dora sees through them, asking to see the search warrant, and she sees the one clue that gives them away, something that a true Brit would not have written. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Toller is friends with the renowned poet WH Auden. There is a lovely scene between them in Toller’s New York hotel room. Toller is a bound to bouts of severe depression. He says to Auden: ‘It’s a strange pathology, don’t you think, … to want to be something other than what you are?’ Auden replies, ‘It’s the same old thing, isn’t it? … All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’

This sense of identity underpins everyone’s actions. Forced into exile in London, they find themselves in a different landscape altogether: that of the refugee whose visas are predicated on the provision that they do not continue their political activities, the very thing that defines them, the very thing that is increasingly necessary as Hitler builds his armed forces for the war that will come.

They now have two overt enemies: first, the growing reach of the gestapo, unafraid to execute resistance members wherever they may be; and second, Scotland Yard as representatives of the British who in the early 1930s are unwilling to rock the boat with ‘Mr’ Hitler. Moreover, there is a covert enemy that begins to germinate: the one that lies within, the one that personifies Auden’s battle between what a person is not and what they are.

In this sense All that I Am is more than a story of the courage, allegiances and betrayals that espionage entails. It’s a story of how love blinds; and a story of loss, of trying to rediscover that part of you that makes you all that you are when external events and then time threaten to lever truths from your grasp. It’s a powerful story with much wisdom that works on many levels, from the slow-burn psychological thriller to the investigation of the human condition in the most pressurised circumstances.

Questions have been raised about whether the story would work better as non-fiction. Most characters were real people, while others were based on real people. I haven’t read Funder’s acclaimed Stasiland, a work of non-fiction that explores similar themes of the individual versus tyrannical power, which received praise for its narrative inventiveness. Some of those who heaped this kind of praise now complain about a work of fiction not being creative enough! Having not read Stasiland, I was free to approach All that I Am on its own terms. To me, it’s a superb re-imagining of past events that speaks to peoples of all persuasions, nationalities and times. I can’t say whether it would have worked better as non-fiction, but it certainly works as fiction.

Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeThe more interesting issue to my mind is it winning the Miles Franklin Award. The judges have taken an expansive view of the prize’s requirement that the winner ‘present Australian life in any of its phases’, that pesky clause that has seen past works with loose connections to Australia ruled out of contention. Ruth narrates from the prism of modern Bondi, and so it deals with a phase of Australian life. But it does so in a limited manner; the overwhelming majority of the story occurs in Europe. I don’t have a problem with the expansionist stance, though I wonder whether the judges were under pressure to be more inclusive. It beat some strong competition, that’s for sure, with the judges split between Funder and Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light. For once, the woman won!

My only qualms come with some minor pacing issues in the middle, and the final chapter. I won’t spoil things for those of you yet to read it, and it is a minor thing quickly forgotten, but there is a POV switch there that is very awkward and could have been avoided.

Otherwise, All that I Am is enthralling.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

All that I Am by Anna Funder

2011

Penguin

363 pages

ISBN: 9780143567516

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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