In the spring of 1689, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho went on a journey that would form the basis of his most famous work: Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The haibun – a combination of prose and haiku – is one of the greats of classical Japanese literature and tells of his wandering from Edo (now Tokyo) into the country’s interior and the hardships he faced there.
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan has taken not only Basho’s title for his 2014 Man Booker-longlisted novel, but has also imbued his work with some of the spare precision and Zen meditations of its predecessor. The novel examines the plight of Australian PoWs at the hands of their Japanese captors while building the Burma Death Railway during the final years of the second world war. His embrace of the beauty and poetry in this and other works of Japanese literature, while examining the darkness of the historical moment, is a mark of how finely attuned Flanagan’s art is to the complexities, cosmic ironies and vast human frailties at play.
Dorrigo Evans, a young Australian surgeon waiting for deployment, pays a visit to his uncle Keith, who runs the King of Cornwall pub on the coast near Adelaide. There he begins an affair with Keith’s much younger wife Amy, which, while only brief, marks him for the rest of his life.
Two years later, Dorrigo is leader of a camp of Australian PoWs deep in the dripping teak forests of Siam. He struggles against the barbarism of nature and the Japanese guards to keep his men alive as cholera, starvation and beatings carry them off. In the jungle, each man clings to something like hope to get through, and the novel traces Dorrigo’s journey to hell and not quite back again as later, a war hero, he tries to reconcile what he did as the camp’s “Big Fella” with his failings and extra-marital infidelities after the war.
Flanagan is one of Australia’s finest novelists. From his ambitious debut, Death of a River Guide (1997), an extended flashback telling the life story of a man at the moment of his drowning, to Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, to Wanting (2008), which told the parallel stories of Charles Dickens and an Aborigine girl adopted by the colonial governor of Van Diemen’s Land, he has produced original, deeply considered novels.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is no different. It is suffused with poetry: lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Catullus – “Suns when they sink can rise again, / But we, when our brief light has shone, / Must sleep the long night on and on” – sit beside gem-like haiku offering nuggets of hard-wrought wisdom such as this by the poet Issa: “A world of dew / and within every dewdrop / a world of struggle.”
Questions about love and death, guilt and memory, both individual and collective, and about what remains of us after we die loom large. “Memory is the true justice, sir,” says one PoW to Dorrigo as they debate whether to burn or save a prisoner’s sketchbook filled with images of the cruelties meted out. Dorrigo is not so sure. Meanwhile, the camp’s commanding officer Major Nakamura and a visiting officer Colonel Kota quote exquisite poetry to each other while Kota shares his lust for beheading. It is clear that art offers no protection against the darkest elements of human nature.
Flanagan’s father survived the Death Railway and – a note tells us – died on the day Flanagan finished writing the novel. At the centre of the book is a long, harrowing section cataloguing one pivotal day in the camp that concludes with the death of a prisoner. Here Flanagan details the work, the punishment, the illness, the food, the camaraderie and the spirit of survival. Dorrigo, as camp doctor, sees the worst of it: “Rows of naked men lay like stick insects dying after some strange swarming, so many cicada husks rising and falling on the woven bamboo.”
Yet the Australians are not the only ones trapped in hell. The Japanese, too, are suffering. Nakamura is addicted to shabu – a methamphetamine used “to inspire fighting spirits”. And every day is a struggle, a bending of reality and broken bodies to the emperor’s iron will. Flanagan tells his story from multiple perspectives: we hear the stories of the men as if in chorus, and we enter the interior lives of the Japanese and Korean guards, viewing them both as the Australians see them (monsters) and as they see themselves (men to whom fate has been unkind).
The technique is both dizzying and heartbreaking; an entire life encapsulated in a page or two. “In the end all that was left was the heat and the clouds of rain, and insects and birds and animals and vegetation that neither knew nor cared. 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.”
Elegantly wrought, measured and without an ounce of melodrama, Flanagan’s novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus RRP£16.99/ Knopf RRP$26.95, 464 pages