‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’

Richard Flanagan is an admirable fellow because of his generosity and outspoken progressive political views. His latest and prize-winning novel draws on his father’s experience as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in WW2. Along with thousands of other allied POWs he toiled as a slave labourer under atrocious conditions in the Thai jungle on the infamous Burma railway construction.

The central character Dorrigo Evans resembles Weary Dunlop, legendary leader of POWs who rallied his men and cared for them medically as best he could under the deprivation and torture inflicted by the Japanese army. It is also a love story, with two women, Amy and Ella, intertwined in the war narrative. The social mores and attitudes of 1940s Australia are well drawn.

The book’s title is a translation of a famous haiku poem, and Flanagan portrays the mindset and Emperor worship of the Japanese officers and guards, and their despised Korean underlings. In omniscient author mode he gets into all their heads, which is interesting enough. Eventually though I was shell-shocked by all the gruesome cruelty and exhausted by the intensive psychological and philosophical outpourings of all the characters involved. I’m not sure it all hangs together properly either.

Flanagan spent twelve years on this oeuvre ensconced in his Bruny Island cabin, and had three separate stories which he eventually combined into one. Unfortunately the result is not seamless, and occasionally the cracks show with some overlapping and repetition, for example the description of a hotel room where he used to meet his amour.

Like Tim Winton, Flanagan seems over-indulged by his editor, who could’ve taken the scalpel to some over-florid passages and over-long narrative. Or maybe the two lionised authors don’t brook any interference? The story would’ve been sharper with less. I felt somewhat bludgeoned by it.

The use of coincidence (or fate?) was unconvincing too, such as Dorrigo walking past Amy on the Harbour Bridge, and the surprise of discovering Darky’s true father. Moreover Aussies didn’t say ‘I’m good’ in 1942, 707s did not fly to Hobart, and writing of ‘things’ to mean qualities or concepts is just poor English (p.331). OK there’s some homework for other nitpickers.

Narrow Road won the prestigious Man Booker for 2014, and recently the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, which was more controversial. Flanagan shared the fiction award with Steven Carroll, and promptly gave his $40K to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – a fine gesture.

However one of the judges, poet Les Murray, complained that the panel recommended only Carroll. Reports say that the PM intervened. “A clear majority of us thought the Flanagan book was superficial, showy and pretentious, and we disdained it. Something happened behind the scenes. I don’t know who pulled the strings but the decision we delivered was without strings”.

For a detailed critical review check this in the London Review of Books.

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1 Comment

  1. Pete, this book is the first to give me a real insight into the digger experience before, during and after the Burma railway. Growing up one of my great Uncles, Ned Jillet, was tight-lipped about it. He was there and survived. Ned’s name appears in a few war biographies as he had a tremendous sense of humour and was central to staging those in camp productions. It was a surprising coup to win the Man Booker but yeah, I’m a fan of Richard’s. Sue

    PS On giving away the $40K you forgot to mention Richard quoting his Dad: “If you let money pile up it stinks. If you spread it around it let’s things grow.”

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