Sunday, March 15, 2015

The world is. It just is.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite having spent the good part of the last two weeks studying the two world wars for my history mock exams, I decided to dive back into Richard Flanagan's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North the day exams ended. 

Dorrigo Evans, who worked as a surgeon during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway between 1942 and 1943, is celebrated as a war hero during the post-war years. As a novel about the war, The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo's work as a surgeon, the experiences of the many Australians who were "the slaves of the yellow man," as well as their lives after the war. Since the novel is also a love story, however, another undercurrent runs through it: Dorry's love affair with his uncle's wife, Amy, during the war years.

While the novel does not progress chronologically, the overtones of war are established from the beginning. We start with a moment from Dorry's childhood, when a simple wound foreshadows the blood to be shed later on, just as the brief expletive - "F*ck!" - on page 9 is a mere harbinger of the many more foul words to come as the Australians are dragged into a war that is not theirs. 

I found the most striking element of the novel to be its depiction of war."The Line," evoking an image of ironic simplicity and brutal straightforwardness, is the Japanese railway that millions of prisoners of war were enlisted to help build. To do so,
They went on trudging and falling, they went on stumbling and slipping and swearing as they thought of food, or as they thought of nothing, they went on crawling and shitting and hoping, on and on in a day that had not yet even begun.
Life is reduced to a bare minimum when it becomes "only about getting the next footstep right:" an aim that is at once deceptively simple and infinitely cruel.

The harshness of war is further emphasized through the bestial imagery in the novel. When all vestiges of civilization are stripped away, Choi Sang-min, a Korean guard, "lived like an animal." He "behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be." Saying that the war turned the prisoners into "a strange animal, a single organism," Flanagan also stresses the sense of solidarity - for survival - that comes with war. 

Another comparison between the POWs and animals is drawn in the novel, but to more tragic effect: like the fish in Mr. Nikitaris's fish shop in Hobart, the POWs are imprisoned in the "tank of war". It is fitting, then, that they - although in a drunk frenzy - smash the shop after the war, freeing the fish into the sea.

Through the way Flanagan has narrated the novel, we are also invited to consider the perspectives of  different characters and, henceforth, different cultures in the novel. Unlike the Australian POWs, who sing when working, the Japanese approach the project of the railway with a strong, cold sense of nationalism that excludes responsibility and emphasizes duty:
War "is human beings . . . Railway might kill human beings, but I do not make human beings. I make railway. Progress does not demand freedom. Progress has no need of freedom. You, doctor, call it non-freedom. We call it spirit, nation, Emperor."
In a similarly cruelly pragmatic fashion, Major Nakaruma believes in the necessity of punishment by force. He is the one who encourages the beating of Darky Gardiner, a young sergeant who eventually drowns in his own excrement.

At one point in the novel, Evans says that he wants to curse God for "for our lives," for "not being here and for not saving the men burning on the f*cking bamboo.” In the novel, war is rightly portrayed as "a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilizations it created, greater than any god man worshipped." 

And after the war?

We are told that some veterans turn to drink, some become fathers who can never hit their children and others "died off quickly, strangely, in car crashes and suicides and creeping diseases." Choi San- min tries to develop his "own idea," one divorced from his nationalistic learnings, but is unable to do so. His only consolation is killing anything, a cockroach, before he himself is hanged. What has the war done to him? As for our narrator, Dorrigo's shock when his wife calls him "Alwyn," reinforces the way he - having lost his identity in the war - returns to a former life that will never be the same for him. Indeed,
“He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving than the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten soup made out of foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country."
So, the war clearly has a long-lasting effect on all who were embroiled in it. "The war pressed, the war deranged, the war undid, the war excused." But what do we remember of the war itself, and how? The structure of the novel is fittingly disjointed, as is memory.
Memory’s only like justice because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.
He would live to see people praised for things that were not worthy of praise, simply because truth was seen to be bad for their feelings.
The aftermath of war brings the conflict between truth and memory. As Choi Sang-min reveals before his execution, some men were hanged even if they did not punish a single POW during the war.

As we are further invited to consider,
Nothing endures. Not empires, not memories. 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?
We are told that “the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; and it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained." Yet to replace the line is its "antithesis:" the death poem written by the Japanese poet Shisui, whose poem appears at the beginning of the novel and recurs at the end. It is "the circle," a "contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return."

The war is over, but it returns with unrelenting savagery. It returns to haunt Dorrigo, for example, when he finds out that - in the cleverest twist in the novel - Darky Gardiner was actually his nephew.

The importance of the circle is further reinforced by the novel's circular plot. In the first couple of pages, Dorry wonders what his aunt's real name is - in the final pages, he has his answer, "Ruth". In both the beginning and the end, he reminds us that "one man’s feeling is not always equal to all life is. Sometimes it’s not equal to anything much at all. He just stared into the flames."

Yet the one point on the circle that Flanagan keeps drawing us back to is Amy - "Amy, amante, amour." The first sentence of  the novel informs us that there is always light "at the beginning of things." Dorrigo's first encounter with Amy, whom he notices because of the light shone on her inside a bookstore, is thus imbued with significance.

Why involve a love story in a book about the war? I kept asking myself that question as I read on. Undoubtedly, both love and war bring out the "demon of desire" in men, although for different reasons. The separation of Amy and Dorrigo as a consequence of the war also reinforces all that the war has forced those involved in it to lose. Yet the balance between romance and death also sustains a sense of poetic beauty throughout the novel that, like the beautiful haikus scattered throughout and even recited before an execution, contrast sharply with the darkness of war and death.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that truly made me feel something. I was so tense during the amputation of Jack Rainbow's leg because something in Flanagan's tone suggested that Rainbow was not going to make it; when was a last time a book had me biting my nails in suspense? I had to read the description of beheadings through squinted eyes. When Dorrigo drives into a fire to save his family, at which point his children see a rare moment of tenderness pass between his parents, I wanted to cry.

"Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass." Yet The Narrow Road to the Deep Road is stunning in its attempt to tell this history poetically, faithfully and capture "the suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many." As Flanagan points out, "maybe it all exists only within these pages and the pages of a few other books." But in life, "Horror just is," the same way we are infallibly reminded that the world "just is."

A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.

It’s only our faith in illusion that makes life possible. It’s believing in reality that does us in every time”

Humans are only one of many things and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.

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