The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, 464 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0701189051
The conflict with Japan in World War II can sometimes be viewed as a sideshow to the main event. In comparison to the titanic battles fought out in Russia and continental Europe, the ferocious warfare waged in the jungles of Burma can appear confused and confusing. The epic struggle between Nazism and the forces of democracy may seem to provide a clear contest between good and evil. In southeast Asia, that moral dichotomy is immediately compromised by the historic role of European imperialism. After the war ended, democratic political structures were re-established in Western Europe. The Asian countries that were liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945 did not wish to return to the rule of their former colonial masters – and, after the war, they sought and gained their political independence.
There is also the question of the striking difference in the treatment that prisoners received in the two theatres of war. It is true that vast numbers of Russian and Polish POWs were deliberately subjected to cruel, degrading and murderous conditions. In my own book, Suddenly, While Abroad, I described some of the dreadful brutality experienced by slave workers – including a group of Irish merchant seamen ‑ in one of Nazi Germany’s labour camps. However, the Germans showed some respect for the Geneva Conventions of war ‑ at least as far as British and American prisoners were concerned. The same cannot be said for the treatment which Allied POWs – and thousands of non-combatants ‑ received from the Imperial Japanese Army.
This is the background to Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and which appears in paperback next month. The novel takes its title from the epic work written by the seventeenth century poet Matsuo Basho ‑ generally considered to be one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature. Flanagan’s book is also epic in theme, and ranges across most of the twentieth century – while focusing on one horrific day in a Japanese prison camp in August 1943. The novel deals both with the long-term effects of war ‑ and, as a counterpoint, with the different forms of enduring love. At the heart of Basho’s original text is the belief that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home”. In its own way, Flanagan’s novel asserts a somewhat similar belief.
Flanagan might be thought particularly well-suited to write a book that is set, in part, in a prison camp in Burma. His own father, Arch Flanagan, was an Australian prisoner of war who worked on “the Line” – the infamous “railroad of death” that was intended to link Thailand with Burma. In December 1941, soon after Pearl Harbor, Thailand and Japan had signed a military alliance – which allowed the Imperial Army “free passage” to Burma. In January 1942, Japan’s 55th Army Division used this agreement to launch an invasion of Burma: by April, the Japanese were in effective control of the British colony.
To maintain its forces however, Japan was obliged to bring supplies and troops to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines and planes, operating from bases in British India, and a different means of transport was urgently needed. In June of 1942, the Japanese army started to build a railway. This huge engineering project was intended to run for almost three hundred miles, and to connect Bangkok with Rangoon.
The idea of building such a railway line had been explored by the British colonial government of Burma some years previously. However, the proposed course of the line – through dense and mountainous jungles, divided by many rivers – was considered too difficult and too expensive to complete. The British had been daunted by the sheer scale of this project, but the Japanese believed that they could succeed where the British had failed. In order to achieve that goal, they were prepared to work tens of thousands of slave labourers to death.
Richard Flanagan’s father was one of those slaves, and the time he spent on the Line was – to quote another of his sons – “the defining experience of his life”. It is clear that the effects of Arch’s captivity have also had a profound effect on his family: indeed, Richard Flanagan has described himself as “a child of the death railway”. He believes that the traumas experienced by men like his father does not end with them, but are passed on to succeeding generations.
Sixty years after the world war ended, Arch Flanagan co-wrote a book with Richard’s brother, Martin, about his experiences in Burma. One part of the book is called a “Tribute to Weary”, and it tells the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop ‑ the leader of the Australian POWs who worked on the railway. Dunlop is an iconic figure in Australian history, and has come to epitomise the qualities of physical and moral courage which those POWs who built the Burma Railway were called upon to display.
Weary Dunlop – his nickname came from the brand of tyre that promised never to wear out – was a doctor who had volunteered for active service soon after war was declared in 1939 and was captured by the Japanese in Java in February 1942. Arch Flanagan was proud to describe himself as one of “Weary’s Thousand” – those Australian POWs who were transported in January 1943 to the Konyu River Camp to work on the section of the Line that became known as “Hellfire Pass”. Dunlop became an inspirational leader to the other prisoners, and a potent symbol of resistance and hope. This was, in part, because of his selfless efforts to care for the sick – through successive cholera epidemics ‑ and, in part, because of the personal risks he took in defending POWs from the violence of their guards. Indeed, it seemed to his comrades that even the guards were in awe of Dunlop’s quiet but unbreakable authority.
After the war, Dunlop became a prominent advocate for the rights of the Australian ex-POWs ‑ helping them to make pension and compensation claims, and playing an active role in veterans’ associations. He made it clear that he had renounced all the hatred for the Japanese people that he had felt during his captivity, and for the remainder of his life he promoted cultural and other contacts between Australia and Japan. Dunlop was knighted in 1969, and, when he died, in 1993, he was given a state funeral, attended by the Australian prime minister. His ashes were later interred at Hellfire Pass.
Dunlop has provided Richard Flanagan with a model for the central character in his novel. Like Dunlop, Alwyn “Dorrigo” Evans is a doctor, who becomes a national figure in postwar Australia because of the courage and fortitude he showed during his years as a captive of the Japanese. The novel is structured to move back and forth between Dorrigo’s current life and his wartime experiences on the Line. As a prisoner of the Japanese, Dorrigo was the officer in charge of several hundred Australian soldiers. Each of those who feature in the novel is given an individual character by Flanagan, but the prisoners also emerge as a collective group – bound together by their intense suffering, and by a simple but powerful sense of comradeship.
As well as Dorrigo, we also get to know his counterpart: the camp’s commander, Captain Nakamura. In several respects, this Japanese officer is not an appealing figure. He is infested with small tics that have burrowed under his skin. He has become addicted to the strong amphetamines that enable him to keep functioning. He is also savage in his treatment of the prisoners – whom he regards with utter contempt. Despite that, we are led to understand some of the underlying reasons for Nakamura’s recurrent violence: the brutalising ethos of the Imperial Army; the incessant and unrealistic demands that are made by his superior officers; his complete devotion to the Emperor Hirohito; and his unquestioning belief in the supremacy of the Japanese nation.
After the war, Nakamura is identified by the Allies as a Class B war criminal but manages to avoid capture – unlike a hapless Korean guard from the same camp, who is executed for lesser offences. Nakamura skulks in the ruins of a devastated Tokyo; he is prepared to murder for food and money; and he adopts an assumed identity. When the statute of limitations for Japanese war crimes expires – after just seven years –he resumes what passes for a normal existence, reverts to his real name, gets married, has children, obtains a decent job and continues to survive. But, of course, mere survival is not enough – and eventually Nakamura becomes swamped by the moral issues that he was able to evade during his years in the camp.
This legacy of psychological damage is shared by the prisoners who survived the camp. In Flanagan’s book, they have also found adjustment to the postwar world extremely difficult – and lead lives that appear aimless and desultory. Many of them have self-destructive impulses, and die from alcoholism, in car crashes or suicides. While Dorrigo seems to have adjusted well to life outside the prison camp ‑ with public recognition and a rewarding career ‑ he is also preoccupied by memories of his captivity. He feels ill at ease with his status as a war hero, and is dissociated from the professional success he enjoys as a surgeon: “He felt his spirit sleeping,” Flanagan writes, “and though he tried hard to rouse it with the shocks and dangers of consecutive and sometimes concurrent adulteries, outbursts, and acts of pointless compassion and reckless surgery, it did no good.”
What all these men ‑ Australian and Japanese ‑ have in common is a deep and troubling ambivalence about their experiences of war. Those experiences were profoundly traumatic and harmful for each of them ‑ but they were also remarkably intense, and have tended to overshadow everything that followed. In Flanagan’s novel, this fundamental contradiction is explained in terms of one long-term survivor: “After all, [his captivity] wasn’t really that bloody long, it just seemed to never bloody end. And then it ended… Then came the good years, grandchildren, then slow decline, and the war came to him more and more and the other 90 years of his life slowly dissolved. In the end he thought and spoke of little else – because, he came to think, little else had ever happened.”
Although Dorrigo’s character provides the basic framework through which Flanagan explores the impact of the war and its aftermath, the novel is not confined to one individual perspective. Instead, the narrative shifts constantly between the Australian and Japanese characters ‑ allowing each their own viewpoint and integrity. It is true that Dorrigo’s knowledge of war leads him to conclude that “all human history (is) a history of violence”. But there still remains the possibility ‑ if not the promise ‑ of individual redemption.
For Dorrigo, both the present and the past pivot upon the central relationship of his life: his love affair with a young woman called Amy. When they met, she was already married to his uncle ‑ while he was engaged to the woman who would later become his dutiful but conventional wife. Although he is aware of the double betrayal which his relationship with Amy involves, it seems acceptable to him in the abnormal circumstances of a world at war: as Flanagan writes, “the war pressed, the war deranged, the war undid, the war excused”.
Dorrigo’s fiancée leads him to believe that Amy died in a fire at the hotel run by his uncle. In fact, Amy has survived the fire ‑ although Dorrigo does not discover that she is alive until many years later when, by chance, he catches sight of her in the street. She is accompanied by two small children, whom Dorrigo wrongly assumes are her own. He decides not to approach her, and remains unaware that she is suffering from terminal cancer. This lack of a romantic resolution is somewhat reminiscent of the central love affair in Doctor Zhivago, but Flanagan has claimed that it was inspired by real events ‑ and, in the context of his novel, that seems entirely credible.
In fact, Flanagan’s novel is imbued with a pervasive sense of authenticity. He spent a great deal of time with his father talking to him about the circumstances of his captivity. According to Flanagan, he was most interested in his father’s memories of small but visceral details: “the smell of rotting skin, what sour rice tastes like for breakfast, the feel of the mud”. In order to portray the emotional reality of the prison camp, Flanagan also tracked down a Japanese commander from his father’s camp, and spoke to him at length. He found him to be “a gentle and gracious old man”.
It is evident that the novel is based upon a great deal of thorough background research ‑ which extends to the minor characters. One of these is a doctor who describes his participation in a vivisection performed on a captured American airman. This is based on an actual incident that occurred in May of 1945 when the crew of a US B-29 bomber was captured after their plane had crash-landed in southern Japan. Eight members of the crew were taken to the anatomy department of Kyushu University. One of the doctors present later described how healthy limbs had been amputated from the airmen, and their internal organs were removed without any anaesthetic.
Similar experiences in the prison camp are described by Flanagan in graphic terms that are, at times, painful to read. Such harrowing details may seem to have little connection with the years of “the Emergency” in Ireland. However, we were also affected by events in southeast Asia. In a recent book, The Emperor’s Irish Slaves, Robert Widders explored the fate of more than six hundred Irish men and women who were imprisoned in Japanese slave labour camps. Most of them also worked on the Burma Railway ‑ where many died from disease, starvation and exhaustion.
Others were murdered by their captors. One of these was Timothy Kennealy from Co Cork. In March of 1943, he attempted to escape from his prison camp. Two weeks later, he was caught by his guards, and executed by crucifixion. The Japanese recorded his death on his POW index card ‑ noting simply that he had been “disposed of”. Kennealy was twenty-eight years old at the time of his death.
This is not an easy book to read and at times the scenes of unremitting brutality threaten to overwhelm the reader. It also seems that it was not an easy book for Richard Flanagan to write. Indeed, he has claimed that he tried to avoid writing the novel, but in the end “couldn’t escape it”. He came to believe that, if he didn’t write this book, he would never produce another one. It took him twelve years and five different drafts to complete his novel. For the last six months of writing, he lived alone “in a shack on an island off Tasmania”. It is clear that the book is deeply personal to its author, and reveals his own anguish at his father’s suffering. He dedicated the book to Arch Flanagan ‑ prisoner 335 ‑ who died on the same day that his son finished writing.
When it was published, the novel was immediately hailed as a turning point in Australian fiction. Flanagan had engaged with a complex subject matter that had defeated previous writers. He had struck an imaginative balance which recognised the common humanity of both captors and captives. At the same time, Flanagan does not write from a position of moral relativity. The Australian POWs and their Japanese guards may both be victims of the war, but it is clear that they do not share an equal responsibility for the terrible crimes committed in the prison camp.
Towards the beginning of the novel, Dorrigo writes an introduction to a collection of drawings made in the prison camp by a POW who died there. He draws attention to the failure of postwar Japan to accept responsibility for the crimes of the Imperial Army. In fact, recent Japanese governments have been inclined to deny that any war crimes ever occurred. Successive administrations have maintained that Imperial Japan did not violate any international law, or break any existing treaty. Those convicted of war crimes by Allied courts are not deemed to be criminals under Japanese law, and Japanese prime ministers are still ready to pay their annual respects at the Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates Class A war criminals.
In his introduction to the drawings, Dorrigo notes that on October 25th, 1943, the steam locomotive C5631 travelled the complete length of the Death Railway. He comments that it travelled past “endless beds of human bones” ‑ the remnants of slave workers who had built the Line. Today, that steam engine is proudly displayed in the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine. Dorrigo observes that there is no mention of the horrors involved in the building of the railway, and no mention of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who died building it. He comments that the names of those slaves are already forgotten, and hopes that the book of drawings will help to restore the memory of those “lost souls”.
If that is also the goal of the author in writing this superb novel, then he should know that he has succeeded magnificently.
David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.