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flanaganInspired by both his father’s experiences as a prisoner-of-war and the life of Weary Dunlop, Richard Flanagan’s new novel explores trauma and heroism on the Thai-Burma railway.

Beside the funeral pyre of Australian soldiers killed by cholera, Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and leader of a camp of prisoners on the Thai-Burma railway, wants at first to burn the sketchbook of one of the dead men. One of his assistants in the camp hospital points to watercolours of atrocities, of torture, and of the everyday life of the camp. ‘Memory is the true justice,’ he says. Dorrigo disagrees:

We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unflinching attempt to stave off that forgetting and, in doing so, to explore heroism, sacrifice, suffering, love, trauma, and memory. This is an ambitious order, and for the most part Flanagan is up to the task. There are passages of brutal beauty, where his flair for the sentence that rises from the muck into soaring poetry allows him to connect small moments to the larger forces of life history. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner-of-war in the Japanese camps, and that lived knowledge of the trauma carried by the surviving soldiers gives the novel its solidity.

Dorrigo Evans, loosely modelled on the famous camp doctor Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, is the novel’s central figure. Divided into five parts, each broken into smaller chapters, the book moves seamlessly back and forth between Dorrigo’s youth in Tasmania, his pre-deployment in Adelaide, his time in the camps, and his life and the fame that follow. Dorrigo is the story’s lodestone, but not always its focus; other voices take over the narrative for chapters at a time, including those of his lover Amy, the prisoners Darky Gardiner and Jimmy Bigelow, and the Japanese commandant Major Nakamura, among others.

Magnetic and ambitious, with a self-destructive streak, Dorrigo finds in his flaws the means to overcome keep his men alive. In a scene early in the novel, Dorrigo forces himself not to accept a steak he is offered:

He so desperately wanted to eat it, and the men wanted him to have it, as a tribute of sorts. And yet, much as he knew no one would have begrudged him the meat, he also understood the steak to be a test that demanded witnesses, a test he had to pass, a test that would become a necessary story for them all.

This instinct for the symbolic, the necessity of sacrificing his own desires, separates Dorrigo from the other men. Repeatedly faced with impossible choices – which sick men will work, which will be sent away, which will be allowed to die – his deep self-doubt, his belief that he is always a breath away from eating the steak, paradoxically makes him stronger. Every moment is a test, a challenge. And yet he ‘hated virtue, hated virtue being admired, hated people who pretended he had virtue or pretended to virtue themselves’.

This hidden self-loathing arises from his personal failings. Engaged to the upper-class and patiently loyal Ella before the war – ‘another thing like completing his medical degree, receiving his commission, another step up, along, onwards’ – he had undertaken an affair with Amy, his uncle’s much younger wife. During the war, Amy learns of Dorrigo’s supposed death and, shortly afterwards, her husband’s pub explodes. On his release from the camps, Dorrigo falsely believes Amy to have died in the explosion and so does not seek her out. Instead, he marries Ella, becomes a surgeon and, after a television documentary about his exploits, a national icon. A heavy drinker with a reputation for chasing ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ although ‘in truth nothing interested him less’, Dorrigo feels hidden within him ‘a great slumbering turbulence that was also a void, the business of unfinished things’.

At its core, the novel is about that turbulence, the trauma of loss and of survival, and its complicated relationship with heroism. Its beating heart is the long third part, set in a camp on what the men simply call the Line. Unlike the other parts, this one is set solely within the men’s imprisonment and told from the perspective of both Dorrigo and Darky Gardiner, called the Black Prince for his ability to procure all manner of necessities. With boots broken and legs ulcerated, Darky is violently punished for something he didn’t do, his decline and death narrated in brutal yet beautiful prose.

Flanagan refuses to shrink from the horrible realities of the camp. Men wear ‘cock rags’ and the sick are ‘shrivelled husks … barked skin, mud-toned and black-shadowed, clutching twisted bones’. With dysentery and malnutrition rife, men shit themselves, anuses protruding from wasted shanks, and even drown in the camp latrine. Much of the novel’s best writing occurs in this middle section. Monotonous and back-breaking, the forced labour of the men is rendered in muscular, uncompromising prose. Set against this tragic horror is mateship:

But he had to help Tiny. No one asked why he did; everyone knew. He was a mate. Darky loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do everything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

For Flanagan, it is these bonds of mateship that bring the survivors through the camps, and endure for years after.

This passage also reveals the layered, recursive style Flanagan employs. Here is another example, from a description of the camp: ‘The trees began sprouting leaves and the leaves began covering up the sky and the sky turned black and the black swallowed more and more of the world.’ In this and many other passages, Flanagan builds the visceral, repetitive quality of war and its trauma into the language of the book itself.

This poetic quality is echoed in the novel’s references to poetry. It takes its name from a work by the writer Basho that expresses ‘the genius of the Japanese spirit’, as one of their officers puts it. Haikus separate each part of the book and are discussed repeatedly by the Japanese characters. Dorrigo himself, like Weary Dunlop, is obsessed with Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and quotes and reflects endlessly upon the poem. This, Flanagan seems to be saying, is no mere historical fiction, but definitively literature.

This literariness extends into the story itself and, I suspect, Flanagan’s desire for the novel to be satisfying and widely read. Events are often too neat – late twists tie together too many threads to be entirely convincing. This neatness jars with the messy, fragmentary and uncomfortable quality of trauma – and oddly so, since Flanagan does a fine job conveying trauma itself.

Nor are all elements of the novel equally successful. Commendable as it is to offer the other side’s view, the sections from the perspective of Major Nakamura, the Japanese commandant, and Choi Sang-min, the harsh Korean guard known as the Goanna, lack the comfortable, known quality Flanagan brings to Dorrigo, Darky and Jimmy Bigelow’s stories. Similarly, Amy’s chapters can be overly melodramatic.

Yet these complaints are minor. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a welcome return to form from the author of Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish after the strange Wanting and the politically urgent but flawed The Unknown Terrorist. While this new novel has much insight into heroism and the trauma carried by the men who lived through the camps, its critique of national mythologies extends only to the treatment and trial of the Japanese after the war. Mateship, masculinity, war and their place in Australian identity go largely unquestioned. For many, this will not matter – and perhaps it should not. After all, Flanagan’s purpose is to convey the suffering men endured on the Line and the price they paid in later life. It is for his readers – and for Australia – to decide what that means for who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.

Richard Flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North Vintage 2013 PB 272pp $32.95

Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at http://www.marichardson.net and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.

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