Thursday, 2 October 2014

Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north

We have had a lot of very lively discussions this year - perhaps we always do! Regardless, our discussion of Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the Thai-Burma Railway, The narrow road to the deep north, was another such discussion. I hope my report does it justice: there were so many conversations going on that it was a challenge to get all the ideas down! One member wondered whether Flanagan was emulating Patrick White with the "bigness" of the themes - love, war, mateship - and another suggested that it was reminiscent, in concept if not style, of the big 19th century novels with its multiple themes and many characters. Whatever it is, we all agreed that it was a good read.

This is not to say that we didn't have questions. We started by discussing its style and structure. Why, some wondered, did Flanagan time-shift so frequently, particularly in the beginning - before we'd worked out who everyone was. Others suggested that this is part of how we tell stories, that we often, in reality, don't tell stories in a simple linear fashion, but digress, jump forward and backwards in time as we try to explain not only what happened but why. Nonetheless, this structure did make it a complex read and most of us felt it could bear reading again in order to make sure we really did get all the connections between characters and events. A couple of members wondered whether it is a little "too" big, perhaps a little "over-stated", to win the Booker. Some thought the bush-fire scene pushed their credibility somewhat, reminding them of what they didn't like about Flanagan's The unknown terrorist.

Although it is written in third person, many felt it read a bit like a first-person novel. This could be because Flanagan uses a subjective (rather than omnipotent) third person voice. He also shifts the point-of-view between characters' "heads", making us feel we were "with" Dorrigo, Nakamura, Amy, etc.

We were interested in Flanagan's sources for the novel: Weary Dunlop's diaries, the knowledge and experience of Flanagan's POW father, Flanagan's trips to the site of the railway and to Japan. Flanagan has written about writing the novel, about how he'd been writing it for 12 years and had tried several different approaches before finally settling on "a love story", with a focus on the doctor in the POW camp. This doctor is not, he says, his father.

We thought the novel was well constructed - and enjoyed the parallels and paradoxes he uses to tell the story. We could see them - such as Amy being told by her husband that Dorrigo had died, and Dorrigo being told by his fiancé that Amy had died; the paralleling of Dorrigo who led the prisoners with Nakamura who ran the POW camp - but they didn't feel contrived.

"Powerful descriptions" (Minervan)

We all enjoyed Flanagan's writing. One member loved his description of dust motes in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy:
He pulled out a book here and there, but what kept catching his attention were the diagonal tunnels of sunlight rolling in through the dormer windows. All around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light ...
She was also deeply moved by the post-war scene in Hobart in which several of the ex-POWs end up spending an evening, eating and drinking with Nikitaris, the Greek owner of the fish shop that they had, the previous night, damaged in order to free fish imprisoned in a tank. A lovely scene about human connection and understanding.

Another member was moved by the profound ideas - and insights - Flanagan expresses about/into the relationships between men and women, particularly in terms of the meaning of intimacy, and of what love really is.

We discussed characterisation, and how well Flanagan individualises the different soldiers by their coping mechanisms - Darky Gardiner's choosing to look for the positive, Rooster McNiece's memorising Mein Kampf, Jimmy Bigelow's cheery "Rightio" and bugle playing. The Japanese are similarly individuated, such as Nakamura by his lice and desperation for shabu, and Colonel Kota by his fascination with necks. Later, post-war, we recognise Kota before he is named because he touches a character's neck.

We liked that Dorrigo is a complex, and paradoxical character. A strong leader in war and in crisis (as shown in a bushfire scene), he was also weak in allowing himself to go ahead with a marriage to a woman he knew he didn't love. Flanagan writes that "for the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty".

"A world of struggle" (Issa, cited in the novel)

Flanagan beautifully demonstrates the illogicality of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, that is, the fact that not caring for the welfare of the prisoners meant more would die which meant there would be fewer to work on the railway. But, Flanagan also shows very clearly the very different mindsets of the western versus Japanese soldiers. The Japanese didn't treat their own soldiers well, beating them severely for even minor failings, so their treatment of prisoners was not, to them, particularly cruel. We liked that Flanagan was prepared to understand the cultural differences that resulted in the Japanese soldiers behaving as they did.

One member suggested Flanagan was making a point about the sublimation of one into many. For the POWs, identifying as a group gave them strength, despite the tragedies and deaths of many individuals. As Dorrigo considers (Book 3, ch 5):
For if the living let go of the dead their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever.

The Japanese, on the other hand, sublimated their individuality to the orders of the Emperor: it was only as part of that whole that they had meaning and honour. The honour of serving the emperor and their country, enabled them to justify horrendous cruelty to the POW’s. She wondered whether at the bottom of great heroism and great cruelty lies this notion of sublimating your individuality for the sake of the greater group.

We were intrigued by how an unpleasant truth can damage a relationship. In his post-war life, Nakamura works with Dr Sato who admits that during the war he'd taken part in vivisection experiments. After this confession, their previously amicable relationship gradually, though not dramatically, fades away. Nakamura, troubled, starts to find Sato "who had formerly seemed such an interesting and genial companion - somehow dull and tedious". It's interesting that he's not repelled, he understands Satos' drive to do his duty, but he just loses interest in the man!

We also discussed the inequitable treatment of "war criminals" - of how the Korean guard, Goanna, was hanged, while many of the commanders were not charged. This we understood was largely due to General Macarthur's reconstruction policy and his desire to keep Japan strong. Flanagan makes points like these by showing, rather than by lecturing, to the reader.

"Love letter to literature" (Romy Ash's review in The Guardian)

A member read out parts of Ash's review in which she said the novel has a second love story - that of literature. We liked the haiku that Flanagan commences each "book" with. (Note: the e-version called the sections "books", but the print version didn't number or name them at all.)

Flanagan establishes both Dorrigo and the two most senior Japanese officers, Nakamura and Kota, as lovers of traditional/classical poetry. For Dorrigo, this includes Catullus, Dante and, particularly, Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses". For the Japanese soldiers, it's the traditional haiku poets like Bashō. The novel's title, in fact, comes from Bashō's haibun, The narrow road to the deep north.

Ash writes that the novel "does turn on the power of a poem or letter". Ella's letter, for example, tells Dorrigo that Amy was dead, which has a major impact on the course of his life.

There is a moving scene in which the bodies of prisoners who've died from cholera are being burnt on a pyre, along with their possessions. POW Bonox Baker suggests that the sketchbook of a prisoner not be burnt because it contains an important record of their experience so "the world would know". Dorrigo is not convinced, and quotes a Kipling poem about forgetting. Bonox replies:
A poem is not a law. It's not fate, Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
We didn't explore this idea in detail - because we were running out of time! - but we did like Flanagan's use of haiku, and other poetry, to link experiences/characters in the book, to draw parallels between Australian and Japanese lives. We also discussed how elusive haiku can be, how we feel that as soon as we catch a glimmer of meaning, it disappears again.

Finally, we talked a little about the "memory industry" to which Flanagan refers a few times in the book. Several of us have certain reservations about how it's been playing out in Australia over the last decade or so, as it seems, does Flanagan. Yet we all enjoyed his contribution to it with this book! Just goes to show the power of literature!




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