Meditations on a Pharaonic Slave System. A review of Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, UK, 2013)
I don’t usually read Man Booker Prize winners – probably from an aversion to worthiness – but I picked this novel up in an airport because of the centrality to its plot of the savagery of the Burma Railroad built in appalling conditions during World War II by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 South East Asian labourers.
My maternal great aunts who lived in the then Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were imprisoned in concentration camps by the Japanese after the colony was invaded in 1942, but my great uncles were not as fortunate – they all died on “The Line” their corpses among the 12,621 POWs who perished under, as Flanagan neatly puts it, “a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king,” the Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
Flanagan’s tale revolves around the axis of The Line which serves both as the incubator of the later war hero fame of his protagonist, lanky, bookish, befuddled and remote Aussie surgeon Dorrigo Evans, and as the divider that severs Dorrigo from the only thing that has ever seemed real to him (apart from playing footie as a kid), his intense love affair with his uncle’s young blonde working-class wife, Amy Mulvaney.
The book is somewhat of a meditation on Japanese war crimes and atrocities – 32 Japanese soldiers were hung for their abuses of POWs on railroad – and the nature of inhumanity, as Flanagan spins side-tales of the post-war evolution of Tenji Nakamura, a Japanese officer, and Sergeant Aki Tomokawa who retreat in old age into a peaceful conviction that their crimes were honourable.
Two other side stories allow Flanagan to explore the nature of suffering and survival, as he follows Sergeant Frank “Darky” Gardiner to his bitter and demeaning terminus, and bugler Jimmy Bigelow to an old age blessed with the loss of his memories of the horrors of having been forced to carve the railroad almost by hand and willpower alone through dense teak and bamboo jungle in torrential rain.
The book is hard to read because of the bleakness of Flanagan’s view of love and loss, and the sheer severity of the POW’s travails. On The Line, Dorrigo throws himself into saving those of his men he can, out of a helpless sense of duty rather than humanity – the same instinct that propels his loveless post-war marriage to a society belle. The text is enlivened by pithy descriptions and scattered gems of Japanese poetry, but if you are looking for a searing love story, this one burns all before it – as a firestorm outside Hobart, so powerfully described – to cinders and ash.