The time line of Richard Flanagan’s new novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” slips back and forth from prewar Tasmania, Melbourne and Adelaide to postwar Sydney, among other locations. Yet there is only one stark, unrelenting and everlasting present — “the Line,” the 415-km-long Burma-Thailand railway that was built between June 1942 and October 1943 by more than 300,000 prisoners of war under the command of the Japanese. One in three prisoners’ lives was lost on that arch-brutal forced march. Of those who perished, 90 percent were Asian, primarily Burmese and Malayans, but also Chinese, Tamils, Thais and Javanese. Nearly 3,000 Australians were among those killed. Richard Flanagan’s father was one of the lucky POWs who survived.
The novel revolves around the life of physician Dorrigo Evans, a character modeled after war hero Edward “Weary” Dunlop. Dunlop, who looked after his men as they struggled under the most heinous conditions to clear jungle, break rock and lay rail from Bangkok to Rangoon, present-day Yangon, called his comrades “living skeletons.” As his men lay dying of malaria, beri-beri and cholera, he bartered with and cajoled the Japanese captors, some of them sadists who took the greatest pleasure in tormenting, torturing and beheading captives. After the war, Dunlop returned to an illustrious career in Australia. He openly forgave the cold-blooded and tyrannical Japanese who tortured and murdered the men on the Burma-Thailand railway.
The mateship — or absence of it — among the Aussie POWs is the theme that propels the story. There is Rabbit Hendricks, who makes sketches and drawings of camp life, creating a backdrop for this heart-rending drama. Tiny Middleton works on the construction of the railway with a prodigious energy, “to show them little yellow bastards what a white man is”; but his overfulfilling of work quotas leads the Japanese to set new limits, and for this he is despised by his less fit fellow prisoners. In the group is also the racist Rooster MacNeice, who passes time memorizing parts of “Mein Kampf.” The most savage beating is given to Darky Gardiner. He eventually crawls to the latrine and drowns face down in it.
The postwar fate of the prisoners who made it back home varies from despair to suicide … to a banishment of the past. Dorrigo Evans becomes a national hero; but, despite the adulation of his compatriots, he is unable to find any degree of self-fulfillment or love. The great love of his life is Amy, his uncle’s wife. But he fails to contact her after the war, only to catch a glimpse of her, 25 years after they first met in an Adelaide bookshop, walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But a re-encounter was not meant to be. Dorrigo has accepted life with a wife he does not love. It is as if the ever-present war has drained all passion away forever.
While “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” largely lacks the magnificent metaphors that drive Richard Flanagan’s 2001 masterpiece, “Gould’s Book of Fish,” perhaps they would be out of place in a book that reads like a modern-day document of war and how it afflicts the aftermath on both sides of belligerency.
It is a shame, however, that the Japanese characters in the novel do not rise far above the caricature of fanatic Emperor worship. If you read the letters and diaries of Japanese soldiers you find a subtle complexity of sentiment. The novel’s primary antagonist is Major Nakamura, who after the war, destitute and alone, survives by moving from Tokyo to Kobe and altering his identity. Unfortunately, the fragments of his inner life emerge, as they do with other Japanese characters, primarily through the perfunctory quoting of haiku.
Western writers have, for well over a century now, been puzzled by what looks like an inscrutable dichotomy in the Japanese mentality encompassing an excessively cruel streak and one that is utterly gentle, lyrical and compassionate. But this can also be said of all other nationalities; such traits are common, in the 20th century, in the actions and expressions of, for instance, Germans, Russians, Chinese and Americans at war.
This being a newspaper published in Japan, it seems appropriate to mention that some of the haiku appearing in the novel are badly mistranslated. (The novel’s title comes from Basho’s classic and, as such, haiku play a key role in the narrative.)
The translation of Issa’s haiku about “the world of dew” that forms a chapter heading in the novel renders kenka as “struggle,” when what the poet means here is “quarrel.” Issa was commenting on a dispute of inheritance he had with his family. “Struggle” might be more meaningful in the context of wartime suffering, but it’s not what the original expresses and it sends the wrong signals.
The first chapter of the novel is preceded by Basho’s haiku about a bee emerging from the depths of a peony. The translation used has the bee “staggering out” of the peony, while in the original, from “Nozarashi Kikō,” tells us that the bee is coming out of the flower not staggering but with reluctant regret. Basho (the bee) is expressing gratitude to his hosts who took such good care of him on the road, telling them how sad he is to leave them.
These are not pedantic points. Many published translations of Japanese poetry, particularly haiku, are notoriously inaccurate. Anyone republishing these should be wary.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is a novel about war and the aftermath of forget … and forgiveness. It is also a story that engages us with its poignant outlook on fate.
Swimming in the sea at South Australia before the war tears lives apart, Dorrigo’s love, Amy, notices that the fish are pointed in one direction, all fighting furiously “to escape the breaking wave’s hold. And all the time the wave had them in its power and would take them where it would, and there was nothing that glistening chain of fish could do to change their fate.”
Richard Flanagan’s characters, whatever their nationality, are in the hold of that wave. Does it ever, I wonder, break?
Roger Pulvers recently received the Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature. His latest novel is “Starsand,” written and published in Japanese.
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