August 29, 2014

‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ reflects horrors of the Death Railway

Richard Flanagan’s new novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” takes one deep into the Burmese jungle with Allied POWs as they die building the railroad for the Japanese Empire. Beware: This is no “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” but a deep look into the misery and death of that massive war crime.

Beware Richard Flanagan’s new novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

His story about a group of Australian POWs during World War II will draw you away from friends and family into dark contemplation the way only the most extraordinary books can. Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” has shaken me like this — all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation.

A finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” portrays a singular episode of manic brutality: imperial Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in the early 1940s.

The British had investigated this route, but they deemed the jungle impenetrable. Once the Japanese captured Burma, however, its army needed a more efficient resupply route, and so the impossible became possible in just over a year by using 300,000 people as disposable labor.

Flanagan’s father was a survivor of that atrocity, which took the lives of more than 12,000 Allied prisoners.

“I had known for a long time that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing,” Flanagan said recently. “Other novels came and went as I continued to fail to write this one.”

Among those other novels that he refers to so modestly is his 2001 masterpiece, “Gould’s Book of Fish,” which also dealt with the unfathomable abuse of prisoners. But the horrors of that story about a convict in the 19th century kept in a partially submerged cage in Tasmania were leavened by ribald humor and a lush style.

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” sports none of that dazzling showmanship. Its magic is darker and more subtle, its impact more devastating. Here, Flanagan is writing about events that outstrip surrealism. His quiet, unrelenting style is often unbearably powerful. Not just an enlivened historical documentary or a corrective to Pierre Boulle’s “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” this is a classic work of war fiction from a world-class writer.

The story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. Each new award only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent.

Asked to write the introduction to a collection of once-contraband sketches by one of the servicemen imprisoned with him in Siam, he begins to recall the experiences of that hellacious period.

Flanagan’s complex, impressionistic structure moves fluidly forward and backward, changing perspectives and locales, keeping us mesmerized but never confused. For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him.

But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind. As more senior captured officers succumb to disease, Dorrigo finds himself placed in command of 700 sickly prisoners who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organized into surviving, whose needs he always put before his own.” (This character bears some resemblance to the Australian war hero Col. Edward “Weary” Dunlop.)

The hospital tent, equipped only with rags and saws, is a theater of magical thinking and unfathomable gore. During one operation scene, I confess that I forced my eyes down the page in a blur.

The greatest burden and the one most affectingly portrayed is Dorrigo’s moral conundrum: Every morning he begins bargaining with his Japanese captors, who insist that dying for the emperor is an honor sufficient to raise his men from the “shame” of being captured.

Dorrigo must select the healthiest prisoners for that day’s crushing labor. But his men — “like a muddy bundle of broken sticks”— are starving, suffering from cholera, and, in the never-ending rain, their ulcer-covered bodies are rotting away. The ceaseless torture described here is strikingly uncreative: The prisoners are simply kicked to death or beaten with bamboo poles to bloody mush.

The doctor must strive to save each one, knowing that, ultimately, he can’t rescue any of them and that their deaths here in the jungle in service to an insane ambition mean nothing and will quickly be forgotten.

Dorrigo’s heroism is never sufficient to satisfy his own ideals. His ordeal as “part of a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king” seems the kind of psychic injury that never heals.

No other author draws us into “the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings” the way Flanagan does.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (334 pages; Knopf; $26.95)

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