You probably do not know as much as you think you do about the Burmese railway. I refer, of course, to the ‘Line’, that insane undertaking of the Japanese army and its POWs during the Second World War, in which 100,000 people died whilst laboriously laying train track intended to connect occupied Thailand with Burma, where supplies were required and would otherwise need to be transported by sea. You probably do not know as much about this as you think you do.
Not only was the bridge over the River Kwai not in fact over the River Kwai; not only did Alec Guinness’s final collapse in the film of that name do little justice to the true conditions of the railway; the men who built that run of track are, of course, in a real way inaccessible to us. Our imaginations of the war, and of the Line, are coloured by ideas of heroism and of villainy, of the futility of conflict or the valour of survival. These are all prisms, and they break the light in artificial ways.
“It was as if,” we read very early in Richard Flanagan’s novel of the Line, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “life could be shown but never explained, and words – all the words that did not say things directly – were for him the most truthful.” [pg. 11] The ‘him’ is the young Dorrigo Evans, a man who grows up in small-town Tasmania, eventually enlists and is captured by the Japanese, and ultimately returns to Australia as a hero for the way he leads a troop of POWs (bar a few notable, haunting exceptions) to survival. He is something of a poet – his favourite verse is Tennyson’s, in particular that paen to unfulfillable yearning, Ulysses – and his love of words leads him ceaselessly to look for meaning under the symbols of the everyday. As this passage hints, throughout his life he never entirely succeeds.
This despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that many see in him their meaning: before the war, the love of his life (and the wife of his uncle), perhaps, or after it the string of mistresses he keeps when the marriage he falls into proves loveless; but also the soldiers of the Line who know him as ‘Big Guy’, or the adoring public who make him a hero. These meanings, too, are shown to be insufficient. Dorrigo, however, “did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” [pg. 53]
Flanagan is very good, in fact, on the ambivalence of the veteran. “Many years later he found it hard to admit that during the war, though a POW for three and a half years, he had in some fundamental way been free.” [pg. 337] Evans, like his fellow survivors, does not remember the Line unfondly: “Jimmy Bigelow,” for example, “felt himself all appearance with nothing inside” [pg. 33]; ultimately, Evans’s troop are not just survivors of the Line, but of life, “of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other” [pg. 204]. Evans himself drags his feet at the end of the war, staying in service as long as he can without becomoing a professional soldier; whilst abroad he can imagine the woman to whom he rashly proposed as an impossible symbol of home; once he returns there, she is simply a person he doesn’t know or even like so very much. War is hell. War is not.
Flanagan conveys all this in a beautifully constructed manner: the novel’s three strands, a pre-war section, the events of the Line (which do not begin until around a quarter of the way in), and the post-war life of a frustrated medic and war hero, slip and weave around each other, never confusing but often demanding: the reader must pay attention, and as the novel goes on must also move further and further beyond Dorrigo’s perspective, which dominates early on. In particular, Flanagan attempts to encompass the Japanese perspective in the book’s final third, investigating their own post-war revisionisms and ambivalences (“Tomokawa had always irritated Nakamura with his narrowness and obsequiousness, but he now saw his old corporal in an entirely different light” [pg. 379]). There are some astonishingly powerful sequences – the scene in which Evans attempts to amputate a man for the second time as gangrene sets in is visceral and unsparing, whilst a later moment in which he and his post-war family are caught in a bush fire is one of the most tense pieces of writing I’ve experienced in a long while. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in the main an extremely well-constructed, and well-expressed, novel.
To be sure, the structure sometimes feels off – that late-stage sympathy for the Japanese in particular feels tacked-on, but there are also occasional over-reliances on particular formulations (for instance, Flanagan has a fondness for describing anuses as “turkheads of filthy rope” [pg. 218 et al]). The choice to conjure Evans’s troop both as individuals and as an indistinguishable collective can sometimes veer into caricature, and sometimes into confusion. It is hard to criticise a highly ambitious novel for not always quite living up to its own laudably high bar, but carp I must.
But must the Booker judges? My feeling is that this is the sort of novel that they may well like: it features a tortured (male) protagonist (“The more people I am with, Dorrigo thought, the more alone I feel” [pg. 110]); it is very lyrically written, and yet does not shy away from violent realism; and it is a worthy historical novel, unusually but politely structured. There is cross-cultural empathy, but also unapologetic representations of dehumanising clash and unavoidable enmity (“Nakamura no longer seemed to Dorrigo Evans the strange but human officer he had played cards with the night before […] but the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations and bens and warps them against their natures” [pg. 293]). This is a complex, careful and yet vivid novel.
Do I love it? I’m not sure I do. Am I meant to? Perhaps not – it is a sign of the ambition of this admirable work that it holds us, as Dorrigo might, at arm’s length, even as it spares us few grisly details. It is a novel of, about and with ambivalence; little wonder I feel it, too, as a reader. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.