Review: Susan Leveron Richard Flanagan

Heroes, certainly: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the same week that I saw the Griffin Theatre production of John Romeril’s The Floating World, the classic 1975 play on the legacy of the Australian prisoner of war experience at the hands of the Japanese. Romeril’s play uncomfortably recalls the ambivalent attitude of the post-war generation to the World War II veterans. They were our fathers, RSL members with patriarchal power, resisting social and political change. Often intolerant, they seemed xenophobic, ignorant and frequently drunken. Yet they had undergone suffering we could not imagine. Romeril’s Les Harding is in the same ludicrous mould as Barry Humphries’s Les Patterson, but the playwright also grants him the terrible experience of the Thai-Burma railway camps, forcing his audiences to shift from laughter to dismay as this apparently stereotypical returned serviceman breaks down before our eyes. 25 years after the war, Les still can’t cope with the Japanese; he has joked his way through post-war life without ever managing to quell the ghosts of his dead comrades and the memory of his own suffering on the infamous railway.

Richard Flanagan’s father was one of these suffering men and his novel about the aftermath of the POW experience shows a more mature attitude to the veterans than we might have had in the 1970s. It may question the nature of hero-worship, but its central characters are certainly heroes. Under the pressure of imprisonment, Flanagan’s Australians are greedy, selfish and erratic, but they are never cause for mockery.

While Flanagan’s father may be the basis for one of the minor characters in this novel, probably Jimmy Bigelow, Flanagan chooses a different kind of character for the central role: a doctor called Dorrigo Evans, partly based on Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, one of the heroes of the prison camps. Evans is an educated man who loves literature – a long way from the vulgar Les Harding of Romeril’s play – and his interest in literature allows Flanagan to place The Narrow Road to the Deep North in an epic and ennobling literary tradition without too much awkwardness. The novel begins with epigraphs from Celan (‘Mother, they write poems’) and the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Indeed, the title of the novel comes from a book by Basho. Evans reads and rereads Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, one of the great Victorian celebrations of the hero, which depicts Ulysses in old age, bored by domesticity and longing for another chance ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ in the famous phrase.

Evans has become a hero late in life, after the broadcast of a documentary about his work in the prison camps, and the novel recalls his experiences in the context of this strange public attention. In peacetime he is not a great doctor; his experiments in treating colon cancer have had disastrous results. He is not even a faithful husband or devoted father. Like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, he remembers scenes from the jaded perspective of a man caught up in a dull and peaceful domestic life, interspersed with moments of awkward acclaim. He seeks consolation in affairs with the wives of his colleagues, yet he remains a man who ‘happily slept without women’ but ‘never slept without a book’.

Evans’s memories are triggered by the task of writing the foreword for a collection of sketches done by Guy ‘Rabbit’ Hendricks, one of the men who died in the camps. Interspersed with these memories, the novel recalls Evans’s childhood in rural Tasmania, his brief university life in Melbourne, and then his posting to Adelaide where he embarks on an illicit affair with his uncle’s young wife, Amy. Though he has become engaged to a more conventional suburban woman in Melbourne, this affair becomes the romantic dream that sustains him through his experiences in the camps.

Flanagan sees Evans as imprisoned in his own heroism, as it is projected onto him by others. Once he has become a legend of self-sacrifice and kindness among the men in the camps, he feels forced to act out their belief in him. At home, he feels a duty to those men to continue playing the role; he even feels a duty to his several mistresses. He sees his own heroism as a kind of weakness, a passive acceptance of duty. Through Evans, Flanagan considers the peacetime hero, and the public need to believe in heroic figures long after their deeds have passed.

But the heart of the novel is its depiction of the suffering and death of the Australians condemned to build the impossible railway. In its central section, the novel shifts from Evans’s consciousness to the points of view of the enlisted men on the line, such as Darky Gardiner, Jimmy Bigelow and Rooster McNeice, and back again. It even gives us the thoughts of the Japanese officers, Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura, as they endure the privations of the jungle, bolster their spirits with drugs and alcohol, and administer brutal punishment as an inevitable consequence of the rigid system to which they owe allegiance.

The brutality comes to a climax in the beating and death of Darky Gardiner, which takes place with each bystander and perpetrator locked into a sense of his own impotence against circumstance. Darky ultimately drowns in a sewage trench – about as abject a death as can be imagined. Flanagan does not flinch from the physical consequences of tropical disease, malnutrition, minimal hygiene and brutal assault. It is painful to read, but written with sufficient tact for the reader to feel distress without being overwhelmed. For much of this section, Evans’s perspective provides a discipline that keeps the emotional power of the descriptions under control; he habitually assesses each man’s state in physical and material terms, holding back his own sense of despair as he calls on his literary knowledge to take a long view:

Dante’s first circle, Dorrigo Evans said to himself, as he walked out of the ulcer hut and headed across the creek and down the hill to continue his morning rounds at the cholera camp, a forsaken collection of open-walled shelters, roofed with rotting canvas. Here all with cholera were isolated. And here most died. He had a classical name for many of their miseries: the track to the line was the Via Dolorosa, a name the prisoners in turn had picked up on and turned into the Dolly Rose, and then, simply the Dolly.

Despite being an account of imprisonment, the novel never loses a sense of the dramatic. While Darky’s fate is sealed by a series of small rebellions by his fellow prisoners, a piteous and ultimately unsuccessful leg amputation prevents the doctors from protecting him from the fatal beating. The sequence of Darky’s death is written with urgency, mainly in the past continuous tense, pulling the reader along in the vain hope of some salvation:

Darky Gardiner opened his eyes and blinked. Raindrops fell on his face. He pushed his hands into the mud but they kept sinking. He was swimming in shit. He tried to get back to his feet. It was impossible. He was swimming in ever more shit. He tried to curl up to protect himself. It did no good and he only sank back into the foul hole … He blinked again. A monkey shrieked, its teeth white. Above the ridge, the smiling moon. Nothing held and he was sinking. He heard the sea. No, he said, or thought he said. No, not the sea. No! No!

In this way, the writing manages to fill a situation of stasis and exhaustion (imprisonment in a brutal work camp) with moments of energy, almost of adventure. The experiences of the prisoners are heart-wrenching, but the narrative pace never falters. Paradoxically, the novel is most energetic in its account of imprisonment and the physical collapse towards death; it imagines the freedom of post-war life as dull by comparison.

The Japanese guards confront a more dangerous post-war world than the Australians. A few guards face war crime trials in Singapore, but others manage to return to domesticity in Tokyo and Sapporo. The lowly and brutal Korean guard is sentenced to death, recognising that ‘the Emperor would never hang’ despite the conviction of the condemned that he was doing the Emperor’s will. The officers escape justice, or even remorse for their actions, though Nakamura, living in disguise, reflects on the implications of his own history. This imagining of the fate of the Japanese prison guards is one of the novel’s remarkable strengths. It notes the class-based nature of justice in the midst of the anxiety to get on with post-war life, and speculates about a variety of responses to it.

While the novel is ambitiously and self-consciously literary, it wisely follows first-hand sources for its central scenes. In his acknowledgements, Flanagan tells us that he has read the memoirs of Dunlop and others, and that part of his account of the selection of the 200 prisoners for extra duty comes almost verbatim from Kevin Fagan’s memories of an actual event. He has managed to retain some of the immediacy of these survivor memoirs, while allowing his imagination to encompass new perspectives on history, and to offer some reflections on the nature of heroism.

Yet the novel raises questions that it does not resolve about the relationship of literature to brutality and war. Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura are devoted to the haiku, growing sentimental over recitations of Issa, Buson and Basho. They assure each other that their cruel work on the railway is at one with the greatness of the Japanese poets. Evans holds on to Tennyson, Dante and Kipling, suggesting that literary culture can provide psychological strength. Clearly, it can also serve as propaganda, encouraging people to perform reprehensible acts in the name of national pride. Evans argues that even Hendricks’s sketches of the camps might be used to aggrandise a future Japanese empire: ‘we talk of the magnificence and majesty of the Egyptians. Of the Romans. Of Saint Petersburg, and nothing of the bones of the hundred thousand slaves that it is built on.’

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Flanagan’s literary offering to history and national culture. It works hard to turn the memoirs of the prisoners of war into a work that is emotionally charged and accessible for readers too young to remember the aftermath of war. It insists on the human failings of the men imprisoned in the camps and tries to present a rationale for the inhumane behaviour of the Japanese captors and the Korean guards. At times, class appears to be more significant than nationality. The novel notes the way Australian officers are preserved from manual labour during imprisonment and the injustice of the war crimes trials that allowed men like Colonel Kota to go free.

There is a difficult problem here that Romeril addresses without solving, perhaps because it is insoluble: how to remember injustice and cruelty while embracing a more modern and constructive relationship with Japan. Since the 1970s Australians have managed such a relationship, possibly at the expense of memory. As a teenager in the late-1960s, I was sent to Japan by the Lions Club; when I returned full of excited admiration, one of the Lions Club men, an ex-POW, took me aside to say ‘I can never forgive’. By and large, the next generation has moved on.

If Flanagan’s novel leaves me feeling uneasy, it is because of its ‘literariness’: those aspects of it that are so obviously part of a fiction writer’s repertoire. Amy’s presence among the Adelaide bohemians in Max Harris’s bookshop, complete with a Traviata red camellia in her hair, seems contrived purely to make a literary link. Evans’s love affair with her appears joyless and unconvincing, detached from any recognisable social world. Amy exists to contrast with Evans’s wife Ella – that other literary cliché, the respectable suburban woman of the 1950s. Surely, we now know too much about the restrictions on those suburban women to accept these easy categories. Of course, many men returned from war suffering trauma that society required them to repress, binding them to the routines of suburban life. But Evans appears disillusioned before his experiences in the prison camps; the damage of war seems to reinforce rather than create his sense of alienation. This alienated suburban man is another familiar literary construct.

Flanagan is writing to entertain, and so reinforces some of the conventions that simplify our understanding of the past. In a work of fiction, the cast must be small enough to be manageable and the characters must have unexpected connections with each other. The kind of fast-moving and enjoyable narrative that Flanagan writes seems to demand further incident and excitement – whether the murder of an American soldier in occupied Japan, or a bushfire in Tasmania. That is, elements of popular romance and adventure fiction impinge on the central subject of the novel.  In the long line of fictional representations of this material, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has more in common with Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice (1950) than with David Malouf’s The Great World (1990) with its slow-paced examination of small lives. The war scenes in A Town Like Alice first brought the Australians’ encounter with the Japanese on the Malay peninsula to public attention. The film and later the television version of that novel kept successive generations aware that terrible things happened to captured men during the war (I note that a new film about a British man’s experience on the railway, The Railway Man, is about to be released with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in starring roles). Flanagan’s novel will, no doubt, find a similarly wide readership. They are both good novels that perform the important work of informing the public about the nation’s history, and they both appear inspired by a heartfelt patriotism.

The POW experience in Changi and on the Thai-Burma railway has become the dominant legend of Australia’s World War II. It is a story of passive masculinity, of Australian manhood engaged in a kind of Christ-like self-sacrifice and suffering. We know that elsewhere in the war Australians fought ferociously, sometimes against great odds. They killed and some of them died, though not in the same proportion as in the World War I. But there are only a handful of novels, mainly by combatants, that engage with Crete, or Kokoda (by T.A.G. Hungerford and ‘David Forrest’), Borneo, the Middle East (Eric Lambert, Lawson Glassop), or Australians in Bomber Command (Don Charlwood). It took Baz Luhrman’s film, Australia (2008), co-written by Flanagan, to draw public attention to the bombing of Darwin, kept under wraps during the war and never explored fully in fiction.

Is the story of Australians in Japanese POW camps more attractive to a contemporary audience because its passivity and victimhood obscures the fact that Australians fought, killed and finally were on the winning side of the war? It is a curious aspect of the national mythology. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Australian soldiers turn away from Rooster McNeice when he kills a defenceless pilot shot down over Syria. McNeice later proves to be the most selfish man in the Japanese prison camps. The ideal of the fair-minded Australian is as evident in Flanagan’s novel as in Shute’s. Though Flanagan goes back to the memoirs and extends the genre into speculation about the fates of the Japanese guards, his attitude remains conventionally patriotic. The role of the war novel here is to celebrate the men who suffered. Evans may see himself as unheroic, but he is a hero in the self-effacing Australian mode, so even more admirable. The novel makes a double move of criticising the superficiality of public hero worship, while celebrating the hero.

Perhaps, the main reason for my unease about the novel is an awareness that any direct experience of these war veterans is now receding into the past. Men who may have appeared to their children as remote, angry or alcoholic are now dead, and beyond understanding in their full complexity. Did the war make them this way, or was it just the mode of Australian masculinity a generation ago? Flanagan’s choice of Dorrigo Evans as his central sensibility distances his novel from these questions. If The Narrow Road to the Deep North becomes the accepted version of the POW experience for the next generation, those ambiguities may be hidden forever. It does not claim to be a novel of psychological complexity; instead, it asks us to engage with the horror experienced by those near to us. At the same time, it invites us to endorse qualities of humanity and selflessness and recognise their part in our culture.

At one point in the novel, Evans declares that he hates ‘virtue’, meaning only that he despises small-minded sexual respectability – the province of conventional women like his wife. Later, he argues with the Padre that suffering in itself does not constitute virtue ‘nor does it make virtue, nor does of it virtue necessarily flow’. This novel, then, does not make its suffering characters virtuous, but it does uphold a more social and communal notion of virtue. Ultimately, it is a work of filial and national piety, of pietas in the Virgilian sense. It is an epic and ambitious engagement with national mythology that also happens to be part of Flanagan’s family’s story. Though he presents us with various kinds of human failing, his book is a celebration of the men who endured the war. This novel lauds virtue to the skies – the classical Latin virtus of manliness, courage, fortitude, care for others, mateship even.


David Malouf, The Great World, (Vintage, 1999).
Neville Shute, A Town Like Alice, (Vintage, 2010).