‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (2014) – 334 pages
The father of author Richard Flanagan was a prisoner of war to the Japanese and a survivor of the building of the Siam-to-Burma Railway during World War II. Flanagan’s new novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is about the harrowing construction of that railroad among other things.
In 1942, the Japanese had just conquered the country of Burma from the British. They saw Burma as a good launching point for an attack on India, but it was difficult to get supplies to Burma. Allied forces were bombing the sea routes. Thus Japan decided to build a railway from Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand) to Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar). All of the Japanese men were fighting the war, so they used men from Southeast Asia and Allied prisoners of war as slave labor to build the railway.
The working conditions for building the bridge were atrocious and at least 100,000 men died during the fifteen months it took to build the railway. The project was ill-supplied. Not enough food was available, so the men had to work while near starvation. Huge epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and malaria swept through the workers. Beyond that, dozens of men were beaten to death by their Japanese and Korean overseers.
There was another novel and movie about this railroad, ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’, which was hopelessly unrealistic and naïve in its treatment of the situation. ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ captures its full horror and desolation.
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is mainly about the Australian prisoners of war who had to work as slave laborers building the railroad as well as their Japanese and Korean overseers. Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and officer, so he must deal with the illness and injury of the Australians. Some of the scenes in the novel are horrific.
Flanagan begins each section of the novel with a short piece of Japanese poetry. The lines from the last section serve as a good description for the entire novel.
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers.
Not the entire novel is about building the railroad which is ‘the roof of hell’ part of the novel. There are also large sections taking place in Australia with Dorrigo Evans before and after the war. These are the ‘gazing at flowers’ parts of the novel. Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans has an intense love affair with his uncle’s wife Amy. Somehow there does not seem to be much point to these love scenes beyond showing that the world is not all misery and heartbreak. But these sensuous scenes also serve to make Dorrigo’s heroism seem more ambiguous later.
However ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a complex novel, and a lot of its power derives from that it does not present its scenes as cut and dried. The parts of this novel may not fit together neatly, but that may be a good thing as we struggle to a deeper meaning of events. Richard Flanagan goes to great lengths to understand the mindset of these Japanese captors who treated their prisoners and workers so cruelly. In today’s world we have seen even the United States routinely using torture when dealing with its political prisoners.
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a fine example of a novel that is open-ended, that preserves the mysteries of life and has no easy answers for them.