- - Friday, October 3, 2014


By Richard Flanagan
Knopf, $26.95, 334 pages

A complex work of special genius, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” traces a wonderful variety of human motives: love, agony, hope, ecstasy, torture, wisdom, conceit, generosity, loneliness, loss. Vividly it reveals diverse places: the reaches of Tasmania, the remote island beyond Australia, and the joyful warmth of a clandestine bed where the curve of a lover’s hip in moonlight becomes an exotic landscape. Add to this the fetid jungles of Burma, where an Aussie doctor faces down Japanese monsters in a World War II slave-labor camp.

Spoiler alert: There are passages in this book as lurid and painful as any this reviewer has encountered. Nevertheless, it is the richest novel I have read all year (and it’s already October). It’s transportive, lyrical, mystical, tragic and deeply humane.

Richard Flanagan created an extraordinary man in Dorrigo Evans and leads him through historical and emotional terrains as tangled as the jungle and as barren as ash. Spoiler alert again: The central trek turns back on itself in a wondrous climax as sudden as one of the beheadings, an epiphany that comes as an absolute surprise and a tragic satisfaction. It is as irony-free as the haiku master who “finally responded to requests for a death poem by grabbing his brush, painting his poem and dying. On the paper Shisui’s shocked followers saw he had painted a circle an endless mystery, lengthless breadth the circle — antithesis of the line.”

As for Evans, he was born at one end of the earth, like the author, and finds his way out. (Mr. Flanagan himself left a remote Tasmanian mining town at 16, worked in the bush, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and then went home again. His five earlier novels include “Gould’s Book of Fish” and “The Unknown Terrorist,” reviewed here in 2007.)

Evans goes to the mainland, to university, to medical school and into the army for early and pointless skirmishes — Cairo and Syria — then to Burma, and captivity, to build an impossible railroad. At first he is outranked by Col. Rexroth, as hilarious an ethnic stereotype as ever stiffened an upper lip. “We will suffer as Englishmen,” he declares, “we will triumph as Englishmen. Thank you.” In a cameo role, he plans “a proper cemetery” with a plot reserved for officers overlooking the River Kwai, then dies a disgusting death, to be “buried along with everyone else in the jungle.”

As senior officer, Evans becomes “the Big Fella” in his fellow prisoners’ eyes, and “felt far too small for all that they wanted him to bear. There was Dorrigo Evans and there was this other man with whom he shared looks, habits . It was a part he felt himself feeling his way into, and the longer it went on the more the men around him confirmed him in his role . As if rather than him leading them by example they were leading him through adulation.”

He is doubly trapped, in the horrific camp and in a false persona by his comrades: Tiny Middleton, the emaciated Christian; Rabbit Hendricks, the artist whose work miraculously survives; Darky Gardiner, the heroic scavenger even in this hell. Their captors are as persuasively drawn. In Mr. Flanagan’s graphic telling, their terrible brutality is understandable, a product of these human beasts’ human consciousness, and their numbness. Maj. Nakamura truly believes that his prisoners dishonored themselves by becoming prisoners. So he will enable them by starvation and torture to “redeem [their] honour by dying for the Emperor.” Of course.

Evans survives, returning to Australia where over the years he is lionized by the media, in turn by the nation, a hoary war hero who leads a simultaneously heroic and villainous life. Now he “hated virtue and the more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it.” An honored surgeon and faithless husband, he is as adulterous as a gecko and not as cute. His serial venery is all the sadder because it plays out against the lyrical prologue of a youthful idyll, his sunshine-and-rain love affair with the unforgettable Amy before he goes to war.

To say that this novel bounces through times and places without ever getting lost is like calling “The Iliad” an epic. To call it a wartime adventure, and an anti-war triumph, and a historical reminder of actual atrocities are also platitudes. It is a haiku in 100,000 words, a Mobius strip in 334 pages and a love story. During Evans’ years-long slog with gangrene, flesh-eating ulcers, beriberi and starvation comes a moment:

“He put out the kerosene lantern to conserve fuel and lit the stub of a candle. For a long time, he watched the flame refusing to die Amy, amante, amour, he whispered, as if the words themselves were smuts of ash rising and falling, as though the candle were the story of his life and she the flame. He lay down on his haphazard cot and opened a book he had been reading that he had expected to end well, a romance which he wanted to end well . Love is two bodies with one soul, he read, and turned the page. But there was nothing — the final pages had been ripped away and used as toilet paper or smoked . There was no last page . 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.”

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about history and culture.

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