Wednesday, March 1, 2017
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Unbelievably The Narrow Road to the Deep North is also a love story, which is surprising since the majority of it is set in the middle of a horrific war. The central topic of the story is the Death Railroad built in Burma (Thailand) by thousands of POWs for the Japanese during WWII. The workers were Asian and Allied prisoners. Most were starved, denied medical attention, and beaten by their captors. Of the 200,000 prisoners slaving on this project, over a third of them died, and died horrible deaths. Flanagan was relentless in his descriptions of the horrors endured by the prisoners as their bodies wore away from lack of food, diseases, and infections.
The book's protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, feels like anything but a hero. He is a medical officer in the Australian army and leadership of the ragtag group of P.O.W.s falls to him when they are captured in Singapore and sent to work on the railroad. Every morning he has to make decisions about which of his soldiers must march to work on the railroad and who are so sick they must stay behind. Every day he tries to provide medical care without medicine or supplies. The deaths of his soldiers haunt him for the rest of his life. Flanagan's descriptions of the men and their maladies are horrifying and sickening. This example is representative of the descriptions. If you have a weak stomach, skip over it. "A severe, untreated ulcer left a thin strip of intact skin down the outer side of the calf, the rest of the leg being a huge ulcer from which poured offensive, greyish pus. "
When the surviving soldiers returned home to Australia no one at home wanted to hear about their horrendous experiences as captives. The public wanted to celebrate the end of war with stories of the triumph not be weighed down with depressing tales of defeat and loss. The men, then, were left to suffer in silence, or on the rare occasions they could talk to one another. Unlike today's soldiers who come home from battle with acknowledged PTSD, these soldiers had to fend for themselves without help from mental health specialist. Most drank heavily, many had anger issues, some even committed suicide. The memory of their experiences during their war years preyed upon them to their graves.
Based on the above summary I doubt anyone would ever want to even start this book, and I'm afraid that is where many of the gals in my book club are right now as they are starting the book. It begins so confusing, jumping back and forth from all periods of Dorrigo Evans' life. Until the reader starts to understand the whole story, it just seems confusing. But by the end of the book, when all the pieces come together the reader will recognize the brilliance of the writer. The ending is possibly one of the most perfect finales I've ever read in a book. Unfortunately, I am afraid, my book club friends may not make it to the end before they abandon it. That will be a pity, but one I will understand.
I've been pondering the title, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and I finally stumbled upon an attribution. It is from a 17th century haiku poem by Basho. In addition to the focus on the events that happen during the war, we also see what happens to not only the Australians but also their Japanese captors after the war ends. Some Japanese poets in the past made a point of writing one last poem right before they died. Perhaps the inclusion of a haiku as a title brings the story around full circle.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Version: Audiobook checked out from the public library. The voice actor, David Atlas, is Australian. His reading enhanced to my listening experience.