The Narrow Road to the Deep North: Book review

“But what reality was ever made by realists?”

True. And thus begins my admiration for Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s a novel you want to take to bed with yourself like its protagonist Dorrigo Evans does every night, it’s that kind of a narrative which whispers secrets to you about your own life, it’s that kind of a story which makes you rethink the events of your life and rearrange them to decipher a new meaning. Borrowing its title from 17th century haiku poet Matshuo Basho’s famous habibun (a combination of prose and haiku), Oku no Hosomichi, it is written in a form of a travel diary recounting the journey of the Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans. Traversing the lives of the prisoners of war who were employed to build the Burma Railway, the novel is a brutal, unflinching account of the lives lost and shattered in the dense jungle between Thailand and Burma. The novel follows its protagonist as he is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s young wife and his own musings as he exists as a war hero. War devastates us; it does not leave an iota of what we are supposed to be. The novel is thus a dialectic between different memories, conflicting accounts, some fuzzy enough to be called a piece of fantasy and others painful enough to recreate that intense feeling of guilt one experiences when we lose ourselves fighting against the unknown. Most of the novel is about incomprehensibilities, about our basic identity suffering a split when we think about our past. Past is a strong metaphor in the novel. It haunts and absorbs the present and makes our reality seem impossible. You must be wondering why I am using ‘we’ instead of ‘he’. The novel has a unique story to tell but it makes us participate in it too. We do not assume a position of exteriority and look on. We are not passive listeners, rather active participants.

The novel recounts the relentlessly flogged, starving, cholera-riddled workers, made up of Asian civilians and Allied prisoners of war as they build the railway between Bangkok and Rangoon to facilitate the Japanese in their Burma campaign. The prisoners were denied proper medical attention as they were forced to work under horrifying conditions. The novel presents the lives of those who lived on the Line and those who did not. But it gradually became about those who died and those survived. It mixes history with anecdote, memory with desire and portrays a world divided, in terms of race, belief, culture and history. There were about nine thousand Australian prisoners, including Flanagan’s father Archie who worked in the construction of the railway. Almost one-third of them died but this episode never “took hold of the national imagination” (Amelia Lester) Thus Flanagan works with the forgotten, the suppressed, and the hidden and brings it under the scanner; the proverbial light which the narrator says is at the beginning of everything.

In one of the most memorable passages in the novel, Flanagan describes to us a line signifying a journey from point A to B. Even though the novel is about a journey it’s not linear. Rather it is cyclical. It’s about life and its diminishing returns … the failing of memory to hold on to that figment of thought which makes you feel alive. Does the novel dictate a philosophy? No. Is the novel a form of philosophical enterprise? Yes, of course.

The celebration of hyper-masculinity has been undone by Flanagan’s caustic satire. Dorrigo Evans’ body (an extension of his own identity) is explored in dream-like metaphors but is never eulogised. It stops short of evanescence; it is terribly humane in its imperfections. Flanagan’s novel is that of an intense exploration, a deliberate foray in what is hidden in the deepest recesses of our psyche. As Basho’s famous line goes, “every day is a journey and the journey itself home,” so Flanagan’s novel teaches us the lesson of ‘Ulysses’,

“… Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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