Archive for April, 2015

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by RICHARD FLANAGAN

narrow road

Bookgroupers were divided. some thought it was poetry, others thought it was like reading a shopping list. Some thought it was bringing light to forgotten history, others thought it was going over the same old stuff we have heard over and over for years and years. There was one point of agreement. it was a gruelling read.

This Booktopia page  has links to reviews of the book, which won the Booker in 2014. This radio national interview, which was first aired in 2013, gives a lot of insights in to the mind of the author.

The book is largely the memoir of its aging hero. This character is called Dorrigo Evans, but it’s clear to Australian readers that his story is very similar to that of the real world Australian war hero Weary Dunlop. Like Evans, Dunlop was a doctor and officer in the Australian army in the Second World War. Like Evans, Dunlop’s hero status is a result of his role as a leader of the Australian prisoners of war in Burma. The Australians, along with prisoners from several other nations, were forced by their Japanese captors to attempt to build what came to be known as the Burma Railway.  The planned route went across mountains and through tropical jungles. The prisoners were given little or no food, primitive tools and all sorts of diseases.

Dunlop is regarded as a national hero because the death rate of the Australian prisoners, although very high, was much lower than that of other nations, and this is ascribed to his efforts as an officer on behalf of his men. The story is taught to Australians as an example of what it means to be Australian; egalitarian, all mates working together, and so on; and it is basically identical to the Dorrigo Evans story in this book.

Bookgoupers agreed the book largely consisted of lengthy descriptions of death, sickness and hunger. However, they disagreed on two main issues: whether there was anything beautiful or poetic about these descriptions; and secondly, regardless of how beautiful or otherwise the words might be, was there was any point to describing all this horror in such detail?

On the poetry front Flanagan certainly aspired to that. In this interview in The Monthly he said:

“I think there is an idea of high modernist prose particularly common with people out of American creative writing schools that actually has lost the importance of those poetic cadences and tropes in the writing of prose.”

But Bookgroupers were divided on whether he succeeded. Personally I didn’t find it beautiful, but I did find quite few great lines.

P3 a happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else
P23 but what reality was ever made by realists?

On the issue of whether there was any point to all these gruelling descriptions, I’m afraid I was very much in the anti-camp. I only managed to read 50 pages or so. I found all the portrayals of awfulness morbid and pointless, stale and repetitive. Not because of the writing just because I have heard it all so many times before. However I was very much in the minority. Most Boogroupers got through it all, many with great enthusiasm, and they said they enjoyed it.

I confess my reading of it was less than objective, and my reactions may be a little idiosyncratic. I have been poisoned by the way stories of suffering in war have been used politically in Australia in recent decades. so now i cannot read these stories without thinking of whose agenda they serve.

In this political context the net effect in my view of this book, and books like it, is to glorify war and make a repeat more likely. I know this is not Flanagan’s intention, and that his actual words say the exact opposite. However the effect of stories like this is to put war on a pedastal. They make war seem like the ultimate in extreme experiences, and therefore the people who die in it or live through it are by definition heroes. This creates a need in all of us to redeem their suffering in some way, and the greater the suffering the more we want to redeem it. To feel it wasn’t wasted. To give their suffering and death meaning. So the more we memorialise war, as this book does in lurid detail, the greater need we have to give it meaning.

This creates an opportunity for one politician or another to link this suffering to some unrelated non-specific end, like freedom. The next step is for politicians to justify future horrors in the name of their chosen goal, ‘the glorious fallen’, and their suffering. We see this in Israel, which constantly justifies its behaviour in Palestine by reference to the holocaust. We also see it with every deployment of australian troops. We are told they are part of the Anzac tradition, following the example they set in 1915 at Gallipoli.

In Australia this happens despite the fact that the historical facts about Gallipoli are well known. The Anzacs suffered and died pointlessly, whilst trying, and failing, to invade a country on the other side of the world for no apparent reason. It was not necessary, and did not contribute in any way to the subsequent freedoms and quality of life of Australians. We all know this but every year on Anzac Day when we remember their suffering, we want to believe all that horror was for something. Surely it had to be? So we choose to believe politicians and generals when they tell us it was.

Hence my discomfort with this book. It plays in to the hands of politicians and generals that want to use the Burma railway in the same way they have used Gallipoli. Like Gallipoli, The awful suffering detailed here played no part in the course of the war. It was a senseless tragedy. But this is such a harsh reality it is almost impossible to accept. It is much easier to believe the politicians and generals when they say they died for us, Christlike.

The counter argument of course, in favour of such books, is the old saying ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. My reply is, the saying needs a makeover to fit in to media world of the 21st century. It should now read ‘those who sanctify the sufferings of war will reenact it, again and again’.

But most Bookgroupers did not have these misgivings. Those who liked the book did have a dispute amongst themselves about the love story and associated sex that runs through the book. There were multiple lines of argument on this point: it was good light relief from the terror; it was a counterpoint in the otherwise too saintly character of the hero, making him more human; or it was just a shameless attempt to make the book more readable and saleable. all these points of view seemed equally valid.

Apart from the gruesomeness, there did seem to be another broad point of agreement between both the pro and anti camps – the inclusion of the Japanese point of view in the story. Bookgroupers thought this was a new and interesting take on the Burma railway story. They were very impressed at the lengths Flanagan went to achieve this, for example taking the reader in to the mind of a Japanese guard as he ceremonially beheads a prisoner. However, they didn’t talk about it as much as the mud, blood and shit, or the sex, so it can’t have been too front of mind for them.

It certainly was the most interesting aspect of the story to me. So much so I stopped reading the book and read a book on haiku instead. The poet featured in The Narrow Road, and from whom the title is borrowed, is Basho. He lived in the 1600s and is apparently the best known haiku poet in Japan. Below are some examples of his work that caught my eye, and/or seem appropriate to the book.

rainy season
and the crane’s legs
have grown shorter

out over the fields
attached to nothing
a skylark sings

quietly in the night
a worm in moonlight
burrows through a chestnut

it should have
stayed green
this bright red pepper

a sad fate for us all
we feed bamboo shoots
at the inescapable conclusion

But I thought I’d save his best for last. This one summarises the whole of Flanagan’s book in three short lines.

Summer grass
All that remains
Of warriors dreams

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April 12, 2015 at 6:55 am 1 comment


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