Years ago, when my children were little, we moved to a small village in Devon. It was a tight-knit community in which people looked out for their neighbours. This was how I discovered that a widow who lived there had been married to a man who’d once been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. It was said that he never really recovered from his time in captivity. No surprise really as, on trying to break free, he’d been recaptured, beaten and his Achilles tendons sliced through to prevent further escapes. This all travelled through my head recently when I read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’
It’s an astounding book on many levels and richly deserved to take the Man Booker prize in 2014. The love story between main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, a young doctor, and his uncle’s wife, and portrayed in the early part of the novel, is beautifully told. It’s this relationship that haunts Dorrigo when held prisoner in a POW camp populated by Australians on the infamous Burma Death Railway.
Flanagan devotes a major part of the story to Dorrigo’s fight to save the lives of his men whose suffering is mind-blowingly incomprehensible. And the author doesn’t spare the reader. Truthfully told, Flanagan describes in graphic detail the ulcerated limbs, bodies racked by starvation and disease, men little more than walking skeletons with shit erupting from distended anuses and running down into the wet bamboo, mud and slime. His description of young men in their prime looking like old men robbed of their vitality is heart-breaking. And that’s before you get to the beatings, casual cruelty and sheer mindlessness of forcing very sick men to labour in viciously hostile conditions. Flanagan also reveals the tremendous pressure under which the Japanese commanders were under care of their Emperor’s great desire to have his railway built at any cost, and with total disregard for those forced to work in pursuit of a twisted dream. Less easy to explain, vivisection without anaesthesia on US soldiers, an account so carelessly told by a Japanese doctor that it makes me shudder to write this.
There is a passage in which Dorrigo oversees a funeral pyre of rotting corpses. He curses God in the ripest of terms. It’s startling and smacks you right between the eyes and yet, more arresting, is the stark observation that three hundred men will stand by and watch three soldiers beat another sick and injured prisoner and do absolutely nothing because their survival for another day or hour or moment depends on submission and silence. And this great insight is where Flanagan, for me, really scores. The novel is packed with wisdom and emotional intelligence. Flanagan’s understanding of the life cycle of human suffering is as perceptive as it’s truthful. It explains why rescued men will embrace life and family, love and work, obliterating memories of the years spent in captivity with apparent ease, only for them to return with a vengeance, like some malignant disease, to haunt them later.
Be in no doubt, this is not a documentary style account of war and what conflict does to the individual and a nation. It’s a story of love and loss, of human endeavour and frailty. Not all who endured such terrible deprivation end their lives consumed by the past, but for Dorrigo Evans, a deeply flawed man, the ‘state of grace’ achieved by some proves horribly elusive. It’s sobering stuff, a triumph of storytelling, and a must-read for its sheer humanity and for creating something enduring and valuable out of the horrors of war.