I can’t remember feeling quite so emotionally drained as I did late last night, after reading the final few words of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2014, the Tasmanian writer’s novel is epic in scale, with a beauty of language describing an atrocity of actions that breaks the reader’s heart on almost every page.
Dorrigo Evans is the story’s main protagonist. He is at once both a good man and a bad man, and in Flanagan’s deft hands becomes one of contemporary literature’s most memorable characters.
As a young surgeon and officer, waiting in Adelaide to be called up to WWII, he has a chance meeting – in a dusty bookshop – with an alluring girl. He discovers Amy is the much younger wife of his uncle Keith, but that does not deter them from embarking on a torrid love affair that will haunt Dorrigo for the remainder of his complex life.
The core of the novel is the horror resulting from the Japanese Emperor’s grand project to build a railway from Burma to Siam, in an impossibly short time and in inhuman conditions, using forced labour from 60,000 allied POWs and more than 180,000 Asian civilians.
The subject of so many other graphic films and novels, Flanagan somehow elevates – or debases – the Death Railway story further, through a haunting combination of almost poetic language and characterisation.
Dorrigo – Big Fella – fights an unwinnable battle every day, with the Japanese POW camp officer Major Nakamura and with nature: his 1,000 charges – no longer soldiers, and barely still men – suffer from dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, malnutrition and myriad other diseases. The surgeon does what he can to delay inevitable death for them, but is still forced to choose those least sick to buckle to the Emperor’s impossible demands in building The Line.
The detail in the description of their deprivation is difficult at times to read, impossible always to understand.
In a makeshift operating theatre, Dorrigo does what he can to save the leg of one of his men. It’s already gangrenous and previously amputated, but he was frantically searching the muck of Jack’s stump with his fingers, trying to find something to stitch, pinching vaulting slime, groping pitching slop, there was nothing, nothing to stitch into, nothing that might hold the thread. The artery walls were wet blotting paper. There was, realised Dorrigo Evans, with a rising horror as the blood continued to pump out, as Jack Rainbow’s body went into a terrible series of violent fits, nothing he could do.
Other characters are fleshed out into whole human beings, even as they waste away to diseased skin and battered bone. We come to know and care about Wat Cooney, Jimmy Bigelow, Squizzy Taylor, Rooster MacNeice, Tiny Middleton , Bonox Baker and other lost souls, as much as their respected officer – Dorrigo, Big Fella.
But the author reserves his most devastating detail and horrific narrative for Darky Gardiner. Essentially a good man, Darky becomes a hapless victim of circumstance one day, and an unavoidable example of Japanese brutality, necessary as Nakamura sees it, to maintain discipline and impose the Emperor’s determination to finish The Line.
The novel extends way beyond that terrible 18 months on The Line, but inevitably Dorrigo’s life after the war is moulded by the horror endured in Burma. He marries Ella, his old fiancee, they have children, he becomes a distinguished surgeon, a public figure and a reckless philanderer. But he still thinks of Amy.
We follow Nakamura and his brutal Korean guard, The Goanna, who rationalise their brutality, with differing outcomes.
We see how some of the other few surviving POWs deal with freedom, home and memories.
But most of all, we remember horror.
My father’s cousin’s husband – Fred Seiker – is 100 tomorrow. Fred survived a Japanese POW camp and, like one of Dorrigo’s men, sketched life in the camp, presumably also risking immediate death if discovered. His published images remain enduringly haunting, and we should never forget The Death Railway. I will certainly never forget The Narrow Road to the Deep North.