Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan’s new novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North is highly likely to win this year’s Man Booker Prize in literature. The Booker Prize (which was recently spoofed in Edward St. Aubyn’s newest novel to great affect) is probably the most important literary award in the world, including the Nobel Prize. It was founded by a business man named Man Booker, and the award is open to any writer from any Commonwealth country. Winners in the past have come from Ireland, India, England, America, New Zealand; Tasmania is an island off Australia, though part of it.
Flanagan has written a complicated, very adult, novel with interweaving plots and themes. The narrator is a medical doctor from a very poor background, who is upwardly mobile socially and professionally, and right before he is drafted into WWII, he becomes engaged to a woman from a “good” family. But right before he departs, he has a torrid affair with his own Uncle’s wife, and that affair will haunt him for the rest of his life. Flanagan’s descriptions of being lost in physical desire, are dead on the mark, beautifully written, while avoiding anything sleazy or pornographic.
Doctor Evans, the narrator, rapidly becomes the lead officer of a group of Australian POWs, trapped in the jungles of Siam, and expected to build a railroad that will link Siam and Burma. The railroad is presented as the Emperor of Japan’s will, and the Japanese guards consider these POWs slave labor. Flanagan’s descriptions of the horrors of life in these jungles with no medicine, almost no food or water and the rapid deterioration of the human body are brilliantly rendered, more so because he uses relatively few examples so that the reader does not get overkill. The difference in philosophy between the Australians and their Japanese masters is superbly analyzed; each side believes in the rightness of its cause (for example, the Japanese believe that no self-respecting man would allow himself to become a prisoner, and by not committing suicide, a noble act in their tradition, the Australians deserve to be slaves). Occasional conversations between the Japanese commanding officer and doctor Evans manifest these powerful differences. Each in his way manages to respect the other in a brilliant counter-cultural dialogue. The Australians rot in the jungle; most die of cholera, beriberi, dysentery, malnutrition. We are occasionally privy to amputations with no anesthesia, no medical tools, and no light, and acts of heroism are almost commonplace. Evans will become a war hero, and though he doesn’t believe he deserves to be, like many heroes, his behavior in the camps is astonishingly fine.
The survivors will eventually hang out together, and we are privy to extreme examples of what we now call PTSD, and I think that may be a major point of the novel. There are divorces, alcoholism, inabilities to work, and other symptoms of that insidious disease. About eight of the characters, both Australian and Japanese/Korean, are followed throughout the novel, and the extremes of human behavior, from daily heroic acts between buddies to the nearly evil and selfish actions of other men are brilliantly rendered. We also re-encounter some of the Japanese guards after the war, who continue to believe that they were doing the Emperor’s will in those ghastly jungles, and do not understand when many of their colleagues are hanged through Australian courts. The Western senses of justice and freedom are completely alien to the Japanese soldiers, and Flanagan is able to explain the Japanese point of view fairly.
We will wonder till near the end of the novel whether Evans and his first love will re-encounter one another; others in both lives have persuaded both of them that the other died in the war, though neither did. Evans becomes unable to love, and as beloved as he is by his country, he lives in a mostly loveless marriage, and thus, ultimately must be seen as a tragic figure, as well as a noble one, thus fulfilling the original Greek definition of tragedy.
This is a tough novel to read, but an essential one for Americans in particular, whose lives have become so detached from the soldiers who fight our wars right now.