The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Chatto & Windus, 2014
In the center of the novel is an Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who during World War II was captured by the Japanese and among other prisoners of war built the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Road of Death.
The novel skips across continents and time layers, but the main events can be divided into three groups: the life of Evans before the war in Melbourne, Japanese camp and the post-war period, when Evans even received a certain notoriety.
Dorrigo was the youngest in a family of seven children. He soon lost touch with his brothers and sisters, every member of the family went on their path. He grew up in Tasmania, but later moved to the mainland, to Melbourne, where the six-foot tall Evans enters the university. Dorrigo shows no special abilities to medicine, but still graduates from the university. Since the beginning of the war he was a surgeon being moved to a military camp in Adelaide, where Evans goes through training. Evans marries, has a lover called Amy on the side and flies to Singapore to fight on the side of the Allies.
Evans in Singapore meets with other soldiers from his unit, and when Singapore surrenders to the Japanese army, the Australians are captured. Evans and his colleagues formes a special unit of prisoners, which includes only the Australians. His unit is sent to the construction work, namely for building of the Thai-Burma railway, which will run from Thailand to Burma.
In his novel Richard Flanagan is trying to lay on paper using artistic methods the story of Australians who were stationed at the Japanese POW camp. Perhaps the main problem of the novel is that it is too artistic. Flanagan has a lush style, he now and then inserts a quote from poetry, tends to bold descriptions and refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue. Such stylistic brightness, sometimes even with a touch of poetry, perfectly matches the life of the main character in the civilian world. Dorrigo Evans loves books and women more than anything else. Women like him, and he fascinates them. Evans is bursting with feelings. Despite his obvious sins (Evans does not even cheat on his wife, he acts as if he does not notice her, at least most of his life he did not notice her), Evans is a likeable hero. He is persistent, passionate, honest man of not too many words, and he is understood without words, by both men and women. He seems not to be blamed for his sins. He's like this by nature. Especially because in the novel his wife Ella is a pale shadow, not full-blooded person, and how we can sympathize with her that her husband is a womanizer?
The protagonist’s soul wanderings is the most intriguing part of the book. Whom he will choose and what happened to Evans after the war, these questions claws at us most of all. Colorful prose of Flanagan comes over already colorful with passion "civilian" part of the plot. But for the life in the camp are Flanagan’s colors are not so suitable. Too unnatural it looks, like a circus, not a camp for prisoners of war. Indeed, Flanagan doesn’t know a sense of proportion. Evans and his friends in the camp act like clowns, tirelessly repeat Britanisms «mate» and «rightio», Nakamura tells long tales about the wisdom of the emperor, as if sitting with friends and colleagues drinking tea, and in general it is not like a camp at all, but Chinese, or rather Japanese, circus. Flanagan goes over the top with paints: if everything is so colorful, it may be that all the prisoners do well in the camp? Maybe they were there on vacation and not with their bones the Road was built? The main hero has a horrible diarrhea, but the author depicts.
«He raised a crumbling canvas flap and Dorrigo Evans followed him through the flared nostril of the tent into a stench, redolent of anchovy paste and shit, so astringent it burnt in their mouths. The slimy red flame of a kerosene lantern seemed to Dorrigo Evans to make the blackness leap and twist in a strange, vaporous dance, as if the cholera bacillus was a creature within whose bowels they lived and moved. At the far end of the shelter, a particularly wretched-looking skeleton sat up and smiled.»
A friend of the protagonist is drowning in a pit of waste and Flanagan again uses colorful prose. Thus, this style fails to convey the monotony, the horror and darkness of life in captivity.
In general, Flanagan’s book entertains more than makes us to think. Among the interesting thoughts there is one that the author touches upon in the chapters written from the point of view of the Japanese officers and guards. One of the guards says that it turned out like that: the Japanese, who had committed crimes against the Allies, white people, were sentenced to death and declared war criminals. But at the same time, the Japanese, who bullied and killed other Asians, weren’t even touched. It turns out that the racial-class division was under any conditions and at all times, whether it was war or peacetime.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North stirs the heart, but only at the beginning and at the end. The middle part on life on POW camp is a failure.