The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Richard Flanagan.

Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Knopf, New York 2013. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 11/14.

This prize-winner is a classic tale of endurance in the style of Holocaust stories, or The War of the End of the World. But it’s also a poignant lost-love story, and although main character Dorrigo Evans is almost superhuman, he is vulnerably philosophical and romantic in the colloquial sense, but finally lost.  Author Flanagan uses Dorrigo’s accomplishments to bring us around to sympathy for his subjectivism (which probably works best for those of us disposed in that direction already). There is enough horror and misery to strain belief, but this book didn’t win the Booker prize simply by rubbing our noses in historical terrifying suffering and death.

Dorrigo grows up in a simple household in Tasmania and a pastiche of touching and realistic childhood experiences establishes the character and the author’s obvious charm and skill. Dorrigo is bright, does well in school, gets into medicine, and becomes a surgeon. World War II descends, and he joins up and eventually is captured and as commanding officer is forced to lead a large group of Australian prisoners of war building for the Japanese, under unbelievably cruel circumstances, the infamous Death Railway in Burma.

But just before he leaves for the war Dorrigo falls in love. In a beautifully contrived coincidence they meet in a bookstore and our hero has a spiritual and erotic experience which would today be referred to as transformative. The change agent, Amy, turns out to be Dorrigo’s uncle’s wife, and the two carry on a clandestine affair at the uncle’s hotel. There is an explosion and fire at the hotel simultaneous with Dorrigo’s departure for the front.

Much imaginative and literary energy goes into describing the prisoner of war camp experiences.  Life consists in nothing but daily death, starvation, beatings, arrogance, humiliation, infection, and geometrically increasing impossible demands for work. The Japanese officers are hideously cruel. Characterization is vivid. An innocent prisoner slowly murdered by flogging in public turns out to be Dorrigo’s nephew, he discovers only after the war is over. Dorrigo struggles to save a dying man in an ersatz operating room where the description of his blind and failing efforts to isolate an artery ring true for me from my own (rare, thank God) experiences of surgery going wrong.

Dr. Evans not only survives, but becomes a national hero and lives out his life. He is an enigmatic fellow who feels alienated from his wife as he longs for Amy who he believes died in the explosion, has multiple affairs without emotional connection, and reflects on life as painful and puzzling.

Major Nakamura is the Japanese officer in charge of constructing the railway, who resurfaces post-war scrambling for his life, but eventually finds his way into a marriage and world of peaceful philosophical reflection. Although this is ironic, he being the torturer and killer of so many in the war, it’s clear that he was trapped and unable to escape as much as the prisoners were.

Many years after the war is over in a climactic moment in the city Dorrigo and Amy walk past one another in a crowded street, recognize each other, but both keep going. And then Dorrigo rescues his wife and children from a fire, somehow reestablishing their importance to one another as a family.

There is a careful and seamless flashing back and forth in time which gives the story a coherence it wouldn’t have if the events had rolled out in temporal sequence.

What do we think of the handling of the great romantic love? Personally I think I like the ambivalence and hard-to-understand motivation so that instead of the kind of sentiment I’d have if Dorrigo and Amy had stopped, embraced one another, and gone off to live happily ever after (or she in fact had been killed in the explosion) I get to reflect on my own experience.

I mentioned subjectivism earlier. It’s the sort of thing Dorrigo appreciates about himself as he gets ready for the impossible life-saving operation which fails:

He made life up every day, and the more he trusted in his fancy, the more it seemed to work.

Absolutely. And because he lives that way the story is about itself. We imagine a life. And in this case the life is not the best it could be, once having had the magnificent and horrifying experience of the war. 9.2/8.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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