Jeremy Simmons reviews the 2014 Booker Prize winner in light of its new edition.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage Books, 2015) 416pp.
Imagine reading a book describing the nightmare world of Australian POWs building a railroad through impossible mountains and sweltering, disease-haunted jungle. Imagine the descriptions of cruelty, filth, starvation and beatings. Imagine this hell and the story of a man trying to survive, to clutch on to his sanity as well as his life. In this book the prose is fierce, the work of a consummate storyteller, leaving out nothing in its nauseating detail. The narrative features a POV that alternates between the prisoners and the Japanese officers who beat them to death but who suffer greatly themselves too, blunting the edge that severs captor from slave. Now, in counterpoint imagine reading a book about a frivolous Australian officer in the throes of a torrid affair with his uncle’s wife, two people who all but consume each other with lust, soaking up their passion in a short-lived dream of love before the woman’s husband returns. The prose in that book coruscates with hyperbole; even cartoonish in parts (“She wanted him, his muscles like little animals running across his back.”)
Imagine reading a book that is both of these stories at once, toggling between these two scenarios and, what is most jarring, two styles of writing.
In Richard Flanagan’s prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which takes its title from a four centuries-old travel journal of Japanese haiku master Basho, I felt I was not only reading two different books, but the work of two different writers. Nevertheless, the praise has piled high for The Narrow Road… it won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. For my part I was baffled by the paradigm shift from powerful war journal to campy love story. By the 130-page mark (out of 397pp) I was bewildered. Was it me? Did I just not ‘get’ it? Whatever the truth may be I cannot escape the impression that this is not award-winning literature… its part brilliant, part hackneyed and wholly in need of an editor. The Narrow Road To the Deep North is the story of Dorrigo Evans, a 77-year old Australian doctor, and includes a handful other people crucial to his life: the woman Amy, Japanese officer Nakamura, and Dorrigo’s friend Darky Gardiner. Dorrigo has had a successful, even glorious career. From the beginning we nevertheless sense he’s an empty man, that he’s never found his place and knows on some profound level that he’s unworthy of the praise and awards that society continually bestows upon him. The opening salvos of this book are written as snatches of time, usually linear but with wide spaces between each; a boy seeing a grown man cry for the first time, brief snippets of conversation with Amy, always returning to the 77-year old Dorrigo Evans, until finally the story transports itself in flashback to the steaming jungles of Burma for the true hell that shaped his life.
Flanagan shows himself a deft writer immediately, his narrative flickers through time like a nickelodeon with frames of a life, as an old man might remember his life, and it draws the reader in. You want to know about the fraud he feels his life is propped up on. Is it some actual fraud? Is he a monster or is it the survivor’s guilt so many aging soldiers feel when they’re praised as heroes while their comrades lie under the ground. Lying in bed with his lover Lynette, Dorrigo flashes back to his hellish months as a prisoner of war, slaving away on the Burma railway, remembering its horrors and the men lost there. It’s clear the author’s done extensive research into the actual Burma railway construction, later condemned as a war crime with death tolls among laborers that might have been as high as 300,000 or more. The author drew upon his own father’s personal experience in the war for this book, and it shows in the detail; it feels real as we read it.
The story pivots back in time to Adelaide, Australia where the love affair of Dorrigo and Amy begins, and this is where the fatal flaw in Flanagan’s book occurs. Of course no one could take issue with combining a romance with a war journal; it’s not only believable but has become a reliable part of the World War II literary canon. Nevertheless, here it doesn’t work. At this point the reader might sense something in the novel had changed; you’re no longer reading the same narrative. This wasn’t just a pivot in space and time but also in tone, setting, modality and literary theme. The powerful prose which had opened the book, especially during the railway construction sequences, was here abandoned. In exchange the author gives us romance novel triteness (“All men were liars and he no doubt was no different-only one tongue and more tales than the dog pound”) and amateurish carnality (“She longed to have his lovely cock in her mouth now; in front of them all down in the living room, that’d put some cream in their coffee.”) Of course no serious critic or reader would blindly object to carnality, to raw sexuality in storytelling, and neither do I. Like anything else if the author makes it work with the characters and stays true to the story, then he or she can write anything at all and make it good. This part of the book doesn’t achieve that, relying instead on childish puns and cliché or, in the case of the latter quote, meaningless x-rated prose for a quick, cheap effect. The writing feels uninspired during the romance between Dorrigo and Amy, and that’s a shame. Had this portion of the book been written on the same razor’s edge between ferocity and unexpected tenderness as the sequences in the Burma jungle and, to a lesser extent, to the opening scenes of Dorrigo as an old man…then the entire book would have been in my opinion the “triumph” that some other critics (but not all) seem to think it was. Perhaps it might have worked if the tryst with Amy had become a vital part of Dorrigo’s experience in the jungle, other than occasional pining for her, and the guilty responsibility he feels for his actual fiancée Ella, who fulfills almost no role in the story except as a lightning rod for Dorrigo’s guilt. Yet I could find no authentic link between these two parts of the story.
When Dorrigo’s story does finally return to the jungle it feels as though the book begins again, but something is lost. I couldn’t trust the prose any more, not as I had before being side-tracked to the romantic spur that Flanagan left the reader on for far too long. There’s still powerful reading in these segments, and those scenes where the POV shifts to a Japanese officer -Nakamura- are especially good, but Flanagan keeps returning to Amy and Dorrigo and the cuckold Uncle Keith back in Adelaide. The rhythm of the book, delicate and subtle in the beginning, has fallen apart with over two hundred pages to go. At least when the story’s timeline moves past the war, to the war crimes trials of Nakamura (and others) and the post-war lives of the surviving POWs in Evans’ unit, the pace begins to find its feet once more. The beating and death of Dorrigo’s comrade (I won’t say who) is gut-wrenching and it’s easy to believe how Dorrigo’s life afterward is haunted by this terrible event.
As the book lurches toward its heartbreaking ending, I found that the principle heartbreak I felt was that The Narrow Road… might have been Flanagan’s masterpiece, but it’s fractured right down the middle by the uncharacteristically poorly-written love affair that dominates whole sections of the book. In a great deal of literature, as well our shared cultural aesthetic, many characters suffer from gender stereotypes and perhaps that’s what is happening here. In a great deal of western literature female characters, however strong, are written as though they need to be either virginal or sexually attractive to be validated in the narrative, and so too do strong male characters seemingly need to sexually dominate a woman while ensuring their own lifelong independence with callous, self-destructive behavior. This is a masculine ideal, supposedly. The ‘lone wolf’ male is a stereotype that in this critic’s opinion is a trope overdue for retirement. Did such thinking play into Flanagan’s treatment of Dorrigo Evans? As for the lonely, broken doctor himself by the end he understands the full depth of the emptiness inside him while we, as readers, are left to wonder what might have been had Flanagan, a writer of proven brilliance, made different choices.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.