The past two decades have seen Richard Flanagan stride confidently into the first rank of Australian writers. His novels are notable for their historical reach, the boldness of their conception, and their willingness to tackle big subjects. They have won him many admirers. But they have also tended to divide opinion, often quite sharply, and this would seem to be a consequence of the fact that they have not always lived up to their promise. The grotesque comedy of Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) proved to be more fun in theory than in practice; while The Unknown Terrorist (2006) was an unhappy example of an author using a novel as a bully pulpit – not a purpose to which it is well suited. There was audacity in the attempt to contain the book’s outsized intellectual pretensions and finger-wagging condemnations within the populist form of a generic thriller, but ultimately it succeeded only in grinding its political message into unconvincing simplicities.
Flanagan’s sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a characteristically ambitious work that addresses a sensitive historical subject: the Japanese treatment of Australian prisoners of war during World War II. Its central character is a doctor named Dorrigo Evans, a ‘Weary’ Dunlop-like figure whose heroism manifests itself in his ability to remain stoic, dignified, and decent in the midst of the dehumanising horrors experienced by the prisoners forced to work on the Thai–Burma railway. Flanagan portrays Dorrigo as a man who comes to feel unworthy of the fame and adulation he receives after the war, when his efforts to mitigate the worst sufferings of his fellow prisoners become public knowledge. Dorrigo’s sense of detachment from his celebrated public image has its roots in the mess he makes of his personal life. He marries a dull, respectable woman for whom he feels nothing, rather than the woman he loves (who is married to his uncle), and he channels his frustrations into a series of joyless infidelities.
Dorrigo’s unease about his postwar reputation reflects a defining ambivalence of the novel, which is both steeped in and wary of the mythologising that tends to enshroud traumatic historical episodes. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is at once appalled and respectful in its acknowledgment of the prisoners’ suffering, but anxious not to idealise their camaraderie, their courage or their powers of endurance. ‘Dorrigo Evans is not blind to the prisoners’ human qualities,’ writes Flanagan. ‘They lie and cheat and rob, and they lie and cheat and rob with gusto. The worst feign illness, the proudest health. Nobility often eludes them.’
Flanagan’s way of doing justice to those human qualities is to immerse us in the sheer awfulness of the prisoners’ existence. For more than 100 pages in its middle section, the novel becomes an enclosed circle of hell. There is no respite from the atrocious conditions: the enslavement, the starvation, the mud and shit, the rampant disease, the violence and death. From this determined cleaving to the palpable emerges a grim fatalism that, in effect, suspends moral norms. Among the prisoners, with their menagerie of nicknames (we encounter Rabbit, Rooster, Yabby, and Sheephead, who slave alongside Chum, Darky, and Crowbar, among others), there are small kindnesses and moments of dry humour, just as there are acts of selfishness and deception. But whatever their individual failings, their culpability is diminished by the overwhelming fact of their powerlessness.
Significantly, Flanagan also makes a point of noting that the Japanese soldiers are themselves powerless, in the sense that they are subject to a strictly enforced hierarchy and an ideology of unquestioning obedience. The impossible demands made by the commanding officer, Major Nakamura – an irritable and unpleasant but oddly pitiable character – are forced on him from higher up the chain of command. There is a graphic illustration of this imposition when the prisoners are made to stand and watch as one of them is savagely beaten. Flanagan describes the men detaching themselves from the horrific scene unfolding before them. Because they can do nothing, the beating becomes a mere fact, another unpleasant reality to be blocked out as best they can. When Dorrigo objects to the severity of the punishment, Nakamura beats the Korean guard who is beating the prisoner but allows the punishment to continue, as a way of demonstrating that there are larger forces at work and that no one has any choice in the matter.
‘Flanagan has a tendency to overplay his hand, to end his chapters with a flourish or to reach for television-grade symbolic moments designed to tug at the heartstrings and fog the mind.’
This fatalism becomes a kind of philosophical conundrum at the centre of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and on this question the novel proves to be interestingly at odds with its main character. Dorrigo’s postwar anhedonia is his internalisation of the powerlessness he experiences as a prisoner of war, which he confuses with his passive sense of regret that circumstances have conspired to keep him apart from his beloved Amy. ‘The world just is,’ he comes to think. But if Dorrigo does not consider himself admirable, Flanagan does. In the book’s latter stages, the issue of responsibility reasserts itself. Some of its most fascinating chapters follow Nakamura into his postwar life, where he fears prosecution as a war criminal. In contrast to Dorrigo’s deterministic view of the world and his sense that it renders his actions valueless, Nakamura feels a deep need to reassure himself that he is a good person. That he was only ever doing what he had to do becomes an excuse. The juxtaposition allows Flanagan to reintroduce a moral perspective that affirms Dorrigo’s heroism. The counterpoint between the gory scene in the POW camp in which Dorrigo operates on a prisoner’s gangrenous stump in a desperate attempt to save a life and the story Nakamura hears from a Japanese doctor, who claims to have vivisected live American prisoners without anaesthetic, makes a sharp and obvious moral distinction.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an absorbing and intelligent novel in many respects, and it contains many admirable passages, yet it is interspersed with peculiar lapses of judgement. It is rich in literary allusions, and there is an amusing cameo appearance by Max Harris, but the references also extend to a bizarrely anachronistic moment in which Dorrigo’s wife, for no discernible reason, quotes the ‘turn it up to eleven’ line from This is Spinal Tap (1984), Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about a clueless heavy metal band. Flanagan has a tendency to overplay his hand, to end his chapters with a flourish or to reach for television-grade symbolic moments designed to tug at the heartstrings and fog the mind. He signals his protagonist’s specialness at the beginning of the novel, for example, by having the young Dorrigo instinctively soar towards the light and take a spectacular mark in a schoolyard game of kick-to-kick – in slow motion, no less. The intimate scene in which Dorrigo informs Amy that he is shipping out and she wonders if she will ever see him again inspires some truly soap opera-worthy dialogue. Later, Dorrigo is seen nobly standing his ground, cradling a gravely ill prisoner in his arms, while Nakamura strikes him. There is a twist late in the novel concerning one of the prisoners of war that is cheap from a narrative point of view without justifying its place in a thematic sense, and the climactic scene of redemption and reconciliation casts aside the novel’s nuanced consideration of the themes of moral responsibility, goodness, love, and regret to embrace a breathless Hollywood action movie version of heroism.
The cinematic flavour of some of these moments is a reminder that Flanagan has directed a film version of his early novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998) and co-wrote the blockbuster Australia (2008), directed by Barry Luhrmann (as Dame Edna Everage calls him). At least some of their awkwardness is attributable to the appearance of such overt gestures in a novel that adopts a somewhat old-fashioned, bossy third-person narration that is striving for a sense of moral complexity. Flanagan does not so much get us inside the heads of his characters as step in to inform us what they are thinking and how they feel, and he often does this well. But the insistent quality is also part of the reason the romantic storyline is the novel’s weakest thread, and why some of its well-intentioned dramatisations shade into sentimentality and heavy-handedness.
Nevertheless, there much to admire here. ‘A good book,’ Dorrigo thinks at one point, ‘leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.’ The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not bad at all. I may read it again one day.