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3 September 2014updated 04 Sep 2014 10:41am

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: A visceral act of remembrance

No one knows exactly how many people died on the Death Railway, but Richard Flanagan’s new novel brings them back to life.

By Rachel Holmes

The Narrow Road to the Deep North 
Richard Flanagan
Chatto & Windus, 464pp, £16.99

In a faraway teak jungle long since cleared, in a country called Siam that no longer exists, a man who is no longer alive finally falls asleep. Alwyn “Dorrigo” Evans, the haunted protagonist of Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted sixth novel, is the subject of television documentaries and talk shows. With his image on coins and stamps, Dorrigo cannot recognise himself in his public persona of the Anzac war hero. In his last moments, he realises that the traumatic memory of his younger self as a Japanese POW on the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” will end with him. Behind Dorrigo and his compatriots in the war is the inspiration Flanagan draws from his father’s experience as prisoner number 335 – a slave labourer who was forced to work on the line.

Evans, an army surgeon, leads a thousand Australian POWs building the railway that imperial Japan believes will put “the whole world under one roof”. Dorrigo’s men are as diverse as Australia: “volunteers from the fringes, slums and shadowlands of their vast country”. The 9,000 Australians in total are a fraction of the 60,000 Allied POWs working alongside a quarter of a million – perhaps more – romusha (Asian labourers).

Dressed only in slouch hats and filthy jockstraps and racked by starvation and multiple diseases, the men confront an unending circle of hell. Flanagan delivers the horrors of war: flesh, mud and shit, breaking bones, unhinging minds, crushed souls. The war is cruel, admits Major Nakamura, with whom Dorrigo bargains in vain for essential medicines, food and rest. “But war is human beings . . . Railway might kill human beings, but I do not make human beings. I make railway. Progress does not demand freedom. Progress has no need of freedom. You, doctor, call it non-freedom. We call it spirit, nation, Emperor.” Flanagan probes differences of cultural perspective. When Dorrigo speaks to him of freedom, Nakamura has no idea what he’s on about. “If they had spirit . . . they would have chosen death rather than the shame of being a prisoner.”

Flanagan takes his title from a poetic work by the Edo-era haiku master Matsuo Basho. In his 1694 travelogue, Basho formulates his philosophy of the identification of man with natural beauty. Flanagan’s novel depicts the opposite: the carnage of men enslaved in an unnatural order that attempts to mechanise humanity to build an idea. Imperialism is the villain of the piece. Pitched against the dream of a global Japanese empire is the western self-delusion of racial superiority.

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Flanagan’s narrative moves deftly between the different periods of a lifetime through the unspooling of concurrent memories. Violent incidents from the camp flash between recollections of Dorrigo’s lost love, Amy, the girl with a red camellia tucked behind her ear, whom he met in a bookshop. “Amy, amie, amour”, is Mrs Keith Mulvaney – his uncle’s young wife.

On his return from the war, Dorrigo marries his fiancée, Ella, but their marriage is based on a cruel lie. Dorrigo never stops missing Amy: “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything.” Ever faithful to her memory, he lives through the “corrective punishment known as family time”, the “conspiracy of affections, illnesses, tragedies, jokes and labour; a marriage – the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings”.

Dorrigo and his fellow veterans struggle to reconcile peacetime life with the mutually supportive comradeship that enabled them to survive the war. “Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the line, and the rest of humanity, who were not.”

Flanagan recently said that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was “the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing”. These are the historical and poetic lines that he writes through, untangles and conjoins: the eternal drumming of brutal human violence and the perennial human capacity for mutual recognition, friendship, love and hope.

Baz Luhrmann once described Flanagan as the “Hemingway of Australia”. “On the one hand,” the film-maker said, “he’s this immense intellect and, on the other hand, he’s this extremely adventurous outdoors man.” Like Hemingway, Flanagan understands the posture and front of conventional masculinity. He captures the devastating effects of patriarchal expectations of manliness on the young men who fought in the Second World War and on their older selves.

No one knows exactly how many people died on the Death Railway. “And no one will ever know,” Dorrigo writes in his foreword to a POW memoir. “Their names are already forgotten. There is no book for their lost souls. Let them have this fragment.” Much more than a fragment, Flanagan’s novel is a visceral act of remembrance and a deeply affecting elegy to fallen fathers. 

Rachel Holmes is the author of “Eleanor Marx: A Life” (Bloomsbury, £25)

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