It’s that time of year again when Man Booker judges will pick one from six and award the prize, which I think should go to Richard Flanagan for his moving and gripping novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Flanagan is an established Australian novelist, born in Tasmania and the son of a Burma Death Railway survivor who, if you are looking for symbolism, died the day his son’s novel was completed. Writers are encouraged to write from what they know; which is sometimes a risky precept; but it is legitimate to draw on your capital of life experiences and invest the proceeds in your new project, which Flanagan has so ably done in The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
The author’s central character is Dorrigo Evans, born in rural Tasmania at the outbreak of World War I and who goes on to qualify as a surgeon, is called up and has reached the rank of Colonel by the time he is taken prisoner by the Japanese. He is the only doctor and senior officer in a prison camp where the inmates are made to work on the Burma-Siam railway construction and he cannot escape taking decisions that will send some men to near-certain death while sparing others who are likely to die anyway. The multi-voiced narrative allows the reader to inhabit the minds of many of the characters in the drama, the Japanese and Korean soldiers as well as the Aussies.
As the novel moves seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, we live through Dorrigo’s first passion for Amy the young wife of his uncle which he has to balance against his commitment to an engagement to Ella, the fiancée who waits for his return as a ‘war hero’ from the POW camp. He expresses his frustration by a series of loveless affairs. None of this stops him from rising steadily in his profession.
What makes this novel stand out from the rest is the Breughel-like picture, horrendous overall but rich in rewarding detail, that Flanagan paints. The mindless Korean sergeant, who hates the Japanese just as much as he enjoys brutalising the prisoners; the Japanese prison commandant who survives the war and the hunt for war criminals to die in his own bed – we may well loath him but we can understand him; the courage and survival instincts of the prisoners in conditions none of us can fully comprehend and, in the main, could never survive ourselves, but must never be allowed to forget. Of the many quotable passages in this savagely wonderful book, I choose a quirky moment in the quagmire that is the parade ground where the roll-call is taking place.
It’s nature’s cathedral, Rooster MacNeice said, pointing at a grove of tall bamboos.
Jimmy Bigelow, raising his sunken eyes skywards, could see only the still-dark early morning sky and the black jags of jungle below it.
Rightio, Jimmy Bigelow said.
Look at the way they lean into each other to form these great gothic arches, Rooster MacNeice said. And behind them, the teak trees those filigree lines like glass leading.
Jimmy Bigelow stared into the gloomy treeline. He asked if Rooster meant like King Kong. His tone was unsure.
I believe there are vitamins in beauty, Rooster MacNeice said.
Jimmy Bigelow said he thought that vitamins were in vitamins.
Beauty, I said, said Rooster MacNeice.
He believed no such thing but had heard Rabbit Hendricks going on with some such nonsense. Such higher sentiments, being higher, even when stolen from others, he saw as evidence of a finer character that set him apart from the lower order and would ensure his survival.
I am looking forward to next week and the judges’ decision but I have put my money on Flanagan. What about you?