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Reflections on Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Walter G. Moss: The thought that love is also hell ends the novel’s reflections on the complexity of love. But the “miracle” of the crimson flower discovered in a miserable Japanese POW camp in Thailand speaks to the transcendent power of beauty.

I love discovering meaningful new books to read. The latest is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel (2014), which is presently being adapted for a TV series. I discovered the book because its author recently wrote an article for The New York Times (NYT) entitled “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide,” with the byline “As record fires rage, the country’s leaders seem intent on sending it to its doom.” At the end of Flanagan’s NYT opinion piece, we read that he won the Man Booker Prize for his 2014 novel.

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Having heard about the Australian fires almost every night on the news—They “have already burned about 14.5 million acres, Flanagan tells us—I learned more about the fires link to climate-change neglect. For example, “The response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been…to defend the fossil fuel industry.” Convinced that climate-change denial in one of the greatest tragedies of our time, I liked Flanagan’s essay and also knew that the Booker Prize has been in existence for decades (actually since 1969) and since 2014 awarded to the best work published that year in the United Kingdom and written in English. Thus, I concluded that Flanagan’s award-winning novel was worth examining. Luckily, my local library made it possible for me to borrow a Kindle copy—I love that service—and within two weeks I had finished it.

It was a page-turner. In the best sense of the word. From near the beginning of this 400-page novel until almost the end we wonder about what will happen to the hero of the story, Dorrigo Evans, and his love Amy. On p. 11 we are told Amy was “twirling her finger in his cropped curls as he recited ‘Ulysses’ for her. The room was on a run-down hotel’s third storey and opened out onto a deep verandah which…gave them the illusion of sitting on the Southern Ocean, the waters of which they could hear crashing and dragging without cease below.”

We later find out that he marries not Amy, but Ella. He often cheats on Ella, however, and the chance that he might get back with Amy remains. The dazzling complexity of love is one of the main strands running through the novel. Another is death and connected to it, aging and the meaning of life.

Thus, the title of Woody Allen’s film Love and Death, a comedy which parodies writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, would have been fitting for this Flanagan novel. And his prose, like the writings of the two great Russians, is “sensuous and concrete, yet pervaded by the life and mystery of the spirit.”

One of the first types of love that Flanagan deals with is what is sometimes called romantic love. After being with Amy at the hotel mentioned above, “he returned to the army camp and a life of order and discipline. But that life, for Dorrigo, no longer had substance. It hardly seemed real. People came, people talked, people said many things, and not one was interesting. They talked of Hitler, Stalin, North Africa, the Blitz. Not one talked of Amy. They talked of matériel, strategy, maps, timetables, morale, Mussolini, Churchill, Himmler. He longed to cry out Amy! Amie! Amour! He wished to scruff them and tell them what had happened, how he longed for her, how she made him feel.”

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These lines are very similar to those by the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Who can explain that powerful feeling, which we sometimes call love, that overcomes and blocks out all other considerations?

But such smitten love as Dorrigo has for Amy is different than the Ella’s type of love. “Ella could not fathom living without loving. She had been loved by her parents and loved them deeply in return. Her love was simply what she was, looking for objects to pour itself out upon…Her love was without reason and would never yield to reason. Though it longed for requital, her love in the end did not demand it.…Her nature was one that wished to live through others. Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.”

Other characters also express thoughts on love. Dorrigo visits a widow of one of the men he commanded as an Australian doctor in a Japanese POW camp in Thailand. She says to him, “I think you make it [love]. You don’t get it given to you. You make it.” A little later, she asks him if he thinks love is when “one day you find someone, and everything they are comes back to you in a strange way that hums? That fits. That’s beautiful.”

A truck driver who drives Dorrigo to and from the widow’s house tells him, “Maybe a lot of people never know love.…Maybe we don’t control any of it. No one makes love like they make a wall or a house. They catch it like a cold. It makes them miserable and then it passes, and pretending otherwise is the road to hell.”

After World War II, a man named Nakamura, who had been in command of Dorrigo and other Australian POWS—and treated them as miserable slaves—is amazed at the love displayed by his wife, a trained nurse, after he is operated on for throat cancer.

He came to recognise what an extraordinary woman Ikuko was. For she devoted herself to his care, was unfailingly light and pleasant, and seemed not to mind his dry and reeking body.…Every morning before she left for work, she would rise an extra two hours early in order to attend to all his needs. He admired her practical nature, but what he loved was simply her presence and touch.…Then he felt no fear, his pain was again for a short time bearable, and he wondered how he could have been oblivious to his wife’s goodness for so long. And more, moreover: for his wife’s goodness brought out so much that was good in him. He bore his illness with stoicism and humour. He made time to see others who were even sicker than he; and even did some work with a charity that took meals to the old. He was kinder and more thoughtful about one and all: his family, his friends, his neighbours, even strangers.

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Toward the end of the novel, Dorrigo sees Amy for the first time in many years. He realizes he “had got it wrong. Her, him, them, love—especially love—so completely wrong.…And the gravity of his error was so great, so overwhelming, that he could not fight it and turn around.”

Not long after seeing Amy, Dorrigo finds Ella and their three children surrounded by wildfires in Tasmania, the large Australian island south of the mainland. (This horrific experience calls to mind the present Australian wildfires.) Dorrigo rescues them and hugs Ella. “It was more affection than his three children had seen their father show their mother in a lifetime.”

The thought that love is also hell ends the novel’s reflections on the complexity of love. But the “miracle” of the crimson flower discovered in a miserable Japanese POW camp in Thailand speaks to the transcendent power of beauty.

In that the novel often flashes back to earlier scenes, in the final pages of it Dorrigo is back in the POW camp. “He found and opened a book he had been reading that he had expected to end well, a romance which he wanted to end well, with the hero and heroine finding love, with peace and joy and redemption and understanding. Love is two bodies with one soul, he read, and turned the page. But there was nothing—the final pages had been ripped away.…There was to be no peace and no hope. And Dorrigo Evans understood that the love story would go on forever and ever, world without end. He would live in hell, because love is that also.” In the final pages of Narrow Road, Dorrigo goes outside in the camp and sees “a crimson flower. He leant down and shone his lantern on the small miracle. He stood, bowed in the cascading rain, for a long time. Then he straightened back up and continued on his way.” Thus, the novel ends.

The thought that love is also hell ends the novel’s reflections on the complexity of love. But the “miracle” of the crimson flower discovered in a miserable Japanese POW camp in Thailand speaks to the transcendent power of beauty. Another such force is goodness. In the face of death and the tremendous suffering of POW life—and the novel describes vividly various aspects of both—Flanagan reminds us that such transcendence exists. (See here for more on death and such transcendental forces as love, beauty, nature, and the arts.)

Jimmy Bigelow is one of the POWs under Dorrigo’s command, and the author spends part of his novel telling us what happened after World War II to him and some of the other POWs and their Japanese overseers. Jimmy was the POWs’ bugler, and he loved music. In the decades after the war he sometimes played “Without a Song” on his cassette player, and it contained the refrain lines“I only know there ain't no love at all / Without a song.” Bigelow thought “ that too was a mystery, because for a moment he saw a man standing on a tree stump singing, and he felt all those things he otherwise didn’t feel; he understood all those things he otherwise didn’t understand.”

Eventually, he forgets his POW experiences. “What did [remain] was an irrevocable idea of human goodness, as undeniable as it was beautiful. At the age of ninety-four he was finally a free man. Thereafter he took great pleasure in wind, in the sound of rain. He marvelled at the feeling of dawn on a hot day. He exalted in the smiles of strangers. He worked at habits and friendship, seeing in them the only alternative to what he felt the alternative was. . . . He would sometimes sit on a bench seat on his verandah for hours watching the birds feed, bathe, rest, preen and play. And in the mystery of their flight and beauty, in their inexplicable arrivals and departures, he felt he saw his life.”

As mentioned above, Dorrigo recited “Ulysses” to Amy. As a youth he “read and reread” this poem by Tennyson, and on his death bed Dorrigo mumbles lines from it. “Every word [of the poem] now a revelation, as if it had been written for him, a poem his life and his life a poem.

Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,

—something more…something more…he had lost some lines somewhere and he no longer knew what the poem was or who had written it, so totally now was the poem him.”

Having recently quoted the poem myself in a recent LA Progressive essay, “Old Aging as a Heroic Quest,” I was happy to see that Flanagan’s hero also found the poem so meaningful. In that essay I also referred to Don Quixote, and several times in the novel Dorrigo follows Quixote’s example and “charges the windmill.” On one occasion, we read, “My only idea ever, Dorrigo had confessed, is to advance forward and charge the windmill. Taylor had laughed, but Dorrigo had meant it. It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible.”

Besides a page-turning novel and discussions of love, death, and the meaning of life, there is much more to value in The Narrow Road. The discrepancy between how the outside world regards Dorrigo and how he sees himself is interesting. Early in the novel, we read, “Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him.… Whatever they called him—hero, coward, fraud—all of it now seemed to have less and less to do with him.” Moreover, “his relentless womanising and the deceit that necessarily went with it were private scandals and publicly ignored. He still could shock even himself—the ease, the alacrity with which he could lie and manipulate and deceive—and his own estimate of himself was, he felt, realistically low.”

To the men under him in his POW camp, he’s a hero. Under impossible conditions, he tries his best to lessen their suffering and improve their lot. But he thinks he acts so not because of any innate heroism within him, but because his men need such leadership. Thus, Flanagan’s Dorrigo is a hero, but like all humans he is flawed, and yet somehow made nobler by his realization that he is so.

The novel is also valuable for all it teaches us. Flanagan’s father was a POW in a camp something like that described in the book. We learn not only about conditions there—the prisoners main job is to help build the Thai–Burma Railway to aid Japanese forces in Burma, similar to the POW work depicted in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai --but also various information about Australia, including the island of Tasmania, where Dorrigo is born. And in sections dealing with Japanese officers, we learn about them and what motivated some of them, such as their reverence for their emperor and the Japanese spirit. We also learn of a camp guard from Korea, which was controlled by Japan until the war ended, and how he felt about the Japanese. In addition, there is a section dealing with the postwar occupation of Japan and the treatment of Japanese war criminals, and how some of them met their deaths. Early in the war, Dorrigo and fellow Aussies are fighting in the Middle East against Vichy French forces.

So far I have written little about Flanagan’s style except to say his novel is a page-turner in the best sense of the word. But the block quote in the middle of this essay dealing with Nakamura’s thoughts on his wife provide an example. It is concrete—“his dry and reeking body” and “took meals to the old”—yet it reflects and brings to life virtues like love, goodness, and kindness. Descriptions of the evils of the Japanese running the POW camp and the sufferings of the POWs may be lengthier than some readers might like, but Flanagan’s prose is not wordy, just realistic. In summary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the best novel I’ve read since mid-2018 when I completed Ellena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss