Nothing endures. Don’t you see, Bonox? That’s what Kipling meant. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.
On the face of it, the plot of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about war: Australian army surgeon Dorrigo Evans is at the head of a group of POWs, captured by the Japanese during World War II and put to work building the Burma-Siam railway. The despair is vivid and painful to behold, the sense of camaraderie that the men share a shrill contrast to their deplorable living conditions. These men are literally dying, and Evans can do little to stop it; the harder he seems to work, the worse it seems to be. Every morning, the Japanese guards demand a certain number of men to work and Dorrigo, exasperated by their demands and hampered by translation issues and severe culture clash, tries to haggle the number down from five hundred to three hundred, when in reality none of the men are fit to work. They are all dying. All Dorrigo can do is put up a brave face and pretend there is honour left where there is none.
It is Evans’ time as a POW that shapes him, but we also see him before and after the war. Before he ships out he becomes engaged to a woman named Ella. Ella is pragmatic and loyal and, above all, well bred, and Dorrigo – who hails from a dirt-poor family in Tasmania and went to medical school on a scholarship – feels a sense of duty and obligation towards her as well as a chance to climb the social ladder, but his heart lies with his uncle’s wife Amy, with whom he embarks on a torrid affair. After the war, as he struggles to pick up his life – like so many literary heroes before him, he embarks on a series of extramarital affairs – he suddenly finds himself a national icon, branded a hero whose face rests on memorial coins and who is asked to write the foreword to books about the war. Dorrigo takes up his role, just like he has taken out all the other duties in his life, but seems simultaneously baffled by it. To his mind, he’s neither a hero nor a villain. He never had a choice except to do as the circumstances dictated. As a man who cheats on his wife with gusto, that excuse is par for the course.
The novel spends a great amount of time pondering the meaning of ‘good’. We see the camp though the eyes other POWs, who all carry names like Rooster, Darky, Bonox and Shugs, emphasising their camaraderie; but also from the perspective of their Japanese guards. Flanagan doesn’t portray them as simplistic devils but rather men caught up in the situation, trying to make do with what little they are given. One is obsessed with beheadings, the other is addicted to methamphetamines. They tell themselves that they are defending the glory of the empire and that it’s the fault of the POWs for giving up, knowing deep in their hearts that the situation is hopeless. After the war, like Dorrigo, they try to make peace with what they have done and like Dorrigo, they are neither good nor bad.
It’s not a perfect book. Like so many, it’s given to great preponderances about What It Means To Be Human, giving it an air of self-importance; the prose is beautiful but often veers into obstreperous word clouds (“less is more” is not a motto Flanagan has ever heard of, apparently). Amy comes perilously close to being a sort of proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and she never really has a personality rather than ‘appealing to men’ and the Bad Sex Award looms glumly in the distance. It also starts to drag towards the end, though it picks up in the final chapters. Maybe that’s the point, though; as memories start to slip and life starts to wind down, time slows too. And though it’s depressing as all hell, it’s undeniably beautiful and poignant too, a study of what it means to be good and how memory blurs and melts, shapes and reshapes. In that sense, it more than achieves his goal.