Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
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The Narrow Road to The Deep North is about a group of Australian POWs during World War II who were used as disposable labour by the Japanese army and forced to construct the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. A third of them died of hardship, disease and malnutrition.
Frankly, my dear, Bridge over the River Kwai this is not. No, it is much more realistic, more brutally honest, and much less inclined towards creating ‘heroes’.
Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a man who has ‘war hero-dom’ thrust upon him, was the doctor and commanding officer for the POW group. A major portion of the book is formed by his reminiscences: his wheedling of favours out of the unrelenting and fanatical Japanese officer Nakamura, the brotherhood between the POWs, their occasional pettiness, the brutality to which they are all subjected. Meanwhile, he also remembers the one woman he had really loved; his uncle’s wife, with whom he had a brief affair before starting off for war.
What I liked
The portions that dealt with Dorrigo’s ambivalence, or rather, passive hatred of his celebrityhood were my favourite parts of the book. “Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause”, he feels, and so he rejects, privately, the accolades thrust upon him.
I also liked the parts told from the Japanese and Korean oppressors’ perspective. Nakamura’s complete conviction in the essential rightness of his cause: that it was okay to slave-drive the prisoners in the attempt to build the railway for the honour of the Japanese Emperor. For him, honour comes before humanity. Colonel Kota makes Nakamura look like a softie by comparison; by modern, Western standards, he is a psychopath. He delights in ‘perfect’ beheadings. And then there is ‘Goanna’, the Korean soldier who is hated most by the Australian soldiers, but whose motives turn out to be the most complex and involved of all.
What I didn’t
Actually, most of this book! First, I’ve read enough non-fiction accounts of various wars, so the horrific treatment meted out to the POWs did not really come as a shock to me. I was looking for something more, something beyond the usual recital of war horrors. I hoped it would come from the other thread running through the story, the longing felt by Dorrigo for his illicit love. Instead, I ended up finding Dorrigo’s affair commonplace: pointless, not poignant.
Similarly, I imagined this entire book written from the ‘other’ side: from Nakamura, or Colonel Kota, or (best of all) Goanna’s perspective. The Japanese point-of-view is fascinating: that the Emperor is God, that dying in his service is the ultimate salvation that the prisoners and soldiers can hope for. (That was the substance of the pep talk that Nakamura gave the POWs every day, before they began slaving away.) When they lose the war, the Japanese are forced, unwillingly, to examine their beliefs, and that’s when they start thinking for themselves, instead of following the state-approved propaganda which they had so rigidly endorsed and forwarded during the war. There was an entire treasury of material here that could have been gone into, and was instead given very little page-space.
I also agree with this critique of the book’s content, written by Raghu Karnad. I felt the same.
Does it deserve the Booker?
Personally, this book did not work for me at all. So, IMHO, the answer to this question is a resounding NO. Neither the content, nor the treatment, nor the style, was up to the standards of the three other books on this year’s shortlist that I have read. While the topic is a very important one that deserves to be addressed, I felt that as a novel, the book fell short.
Editor’s Note: Well, this one did win after all! One man’s poison is another one’s elixir…
For a more (much more!) positive review, check out the Washington Post review.