“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.”
Dorrigo Evans doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of himself. He is an inveterate womaniser, a distant father, a disloyal husband, an excessive drinker, and a sometimes reckless surgeon. Yet, because of his time as a commanding officer of enslaved Australian prisoners of war on the Burma death railway, he is regarded as a national hero. This he regards as somewhat fraudulent, echoing the pretenses of leadership that he displayed in the camps. Dorrigo knows what he is: an officer who failed his men by allowing himself to become complicit in the war crimes of their Japanese captors.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker prize in 2014 and trails behind it a mountain-load of praise. It deserves every accolade: it is an extraordinary meditation on war, death, heroism, trauma, love and loss. It is also one of the most difficult books I have ever read.
The centrepiece of the book is an extended account of a single day in the POW camp, echoing Solzhenitsyn’s novel of the gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I found this particularly gruelling, the pages suffused with dread for the atrocities that the author has already informed us will occur. Through this section we meet the doomed, struggling to maintain their dignity and decency in the face of the implacable brutality of Japanese militarism. Perhaps not all readers will find this such a difficult section but it took me weeks to read, unable to handle more than a few pages a day.
I am particularly relieved that I stuck with this. The discomfort of reading about the death railway is as nothing to what those, including the author’s father, suffered on it.
And the novel is ultimately one of profound insight and devastating power: it made me cry more than once. It affirms a theme of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, that war obliterates not only life but love itself, and is unflinching in showing the reader that atrocities are committed by people as human as we are: Dorrigo’s captors go to their graves believing themselves good and patriotic people, more concerned with how they felt about killing than for the actual murders they inflicted on helpless prisoners.
But there are also more redemptive and hopeful notes. In contrast to his captors Dorrigo survives the war thinking himself a bad man, a failure and accomplice to war crimes, thinking that is a product, no doubt, of post-traumatic stress. But Flanagan shows us how, even at our most flawed, human beings may be better than we ever dare to imagine ourselves. Indeed, it may even be our flaws, sometimes, that compel us to heroism.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a masterpiece.