“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” – Matsuo Basho
I just finished reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Written in 2013, the book won the Man Booker Prize for 2014. An amazing book, and now that it is over, I kind of miss it. The book is set during the WW2 when the Empire of Japan undertook the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway, also known as the Death railway, using Asian Civilian laborers and Prisoners of War. More than 90000 people had died in the jungles of Siam trying to build what was deemed impossible due to the impenetrable jungles. The book chronicles the life of Dorrigo Evans from his childhood, till his death and in the process we go through war, Cholera, torture, deaths and who would imagine…A Love Story in the midst of it all!!
‘Why at the beginning of things is there always light?’ the story opens with this line as Dorrigo Evans reminisces his early life. Born into a poor family, Dorrigo makes his way to medical school and then to the Army. He meets Ella, the daughter of a prominent Melbourne family and is introduced in to the world of ‘dark wood living rooms and clubs’. Although he does not love Ella, he is still drawn to her word and assumes they would marry, a step forward for Dorrigo ‘like completing his medical degree, receiving his commission’. It is during the last days of his army training in Adelaide that he meets Amy, his Uncle Keith’s much younger wife and falls in love. The affair however ends abruptly when Keith finds out and Dorrigo is called into serve at the war. Australia losses the war and Dorrigo Evans along with his platoon are taken prisoners, and thereby starts the horrifying years of his life in the Siam jungles as a Japanese POW. Then a letter arrives at the camp for him which changes his life forever.
The major part of the book chronicles his life as a POW. Subjected to extremely cruelty, inhuman conditions and excruciating labour the POWs are ordered to build an impossible Railway line, known as the Death Railway in history. Here we come across other characters like Darky Gardiner who dies of a beating at the hands of the Japanese guards. Jimmy Bigelow, who lives to be old and struggles to wipe the memories of the camp. Jack Rainbow, who dies on the bamboo operating table despite every effort of Dorrigo to try and save him. The Japanese general Nakamura, who is able to escape from being arrested for war crimes, but goes through life trying to convince himself that he is not a bad person, what he did was the Emperor’s will. The Goanna, a Korean guard, who is prosecuted for war crimes, who wonders why is he being killed when the Emperor, whose orders he carried out, is out there safe. General Kato who loves executing people. And here we see another facet of Dorrigo Evans, ‘The Big Fella’ who tries his best to save his people, to stand up to the Japanese atrocities, who gives up the steak, made out of a stolen cow, that the kitchen hand brings him one night – ‘Dorrigo Evans feared that if the steak stayed there in front of him a moment longer, he would seize it with both hands and swallow it whole’ And why was this such a big deal? Because everyone including him were starving, sick and dying.
Don’t however make the mistake of thinking that it is morbid; the author weaves a beautiful love story, ‘Amy amie, amour’. A love that transcends decades, social bindings and the Siam jungles. A love not destined to be fulfilled yet complete. Add to that a generous serving of poetry. We keep reading Dorrigo quoting from Ulysses amongst other poems and you realize that Dorrigo’s life very closely reflects the restlessness of Ulysses. He also uses poetry to show us the human side of the Japanese generals. In fact the novel is quite a window into the rich Japanese world of Haikus and Japanese death poems. The Title of the book is taken from Matsuo Basho’s ‘The Narrow road to the interior’ a poet oft mentioned in the book, which made me read up a bit on the Basho and I felt some of his poems capture the essence of this very Novel so well.
Do I recommend it? Of course, it’s a must read. While it might become a little difficult at times when you read about the monstrosity of the POW camp [I had to take several breaks], the novel at the same time is almost sublime, because the novel is clearly not about the suffering, it is about people, their lives, their love and how an event can change it all.
And yes, even if you are the tough kind who never cries reading a novel, I bet you will find yourself wiping away a teardrop at the corner of your eyes, when you read about Nikitari’s tank or Sato’s white coat.