Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian writer acclaimed for such novels as Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish, has a right to focus on the so-called Burma railway, built with forced labour by the Japanese in the second world war. His father was an Australian prisoner of war on the infamous “narrow road”, and the railway ran through his childhood, too. Let me say, though, that his book ranges far in time and human fascination beyond that central and barbarous piece of engineering.
His Australian protagonist is a surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his own amazement becomes legendary in postwar Australia for his wartime courage in the face of Japanese captors. By his middle years he is a national figure – his own face staring back at him “from charity letterheads to memorial coins”. Dorrigo’s boyhood took place far from the grief and benefits of the big world, however. Innocent of electricity, his family “slept under skins of possums they snared”. He is elevated to medicine as a scholarship boy, and, in a splendid set piece in an Adelaide bookshop, Dorrigo, now a military surgeon, meets a small-framed, gleaming-eyed and galvanising woman named Amy. The affair is somehow permissible because “the war pressed, the war deranged, the war undid, the war excused”. The fact that Amy is married to his uncle would be clunky in other hands, but is utterly convincing here.
The narrative advances: when we meet the Japanese commander of the Thai railway camp, Nakamura, ridden with jungle ticks and dependent on methamphetamine, we realise that he too is a prisoner of the project. Dorrigo, now the leader of a thousand-strong group of fevered and ulcerated men, stands before him, defiant, “a weak man whom the thousand were forming into the shape of their expectations of him as a strong man”. He reports to Nakamura the number – out of his original thousand – still capable of work. But, “three hundred and sixty-three was not the real number … Because, thought Dorrigo Evans, the real number was zero.” His men are quintessential young Australians, all with names appropriate to Antipodean spaces – Rooster MacNeice, Darky Gardiner, Sheephead Morton, Bonox Baker, Lizard Brancusi, Chum Fahey. They are all dying, but empowered to remain on the right side of death’s margin by Dorrigo’s determination to make his despair carry the face of “purpose and certainty”. Yet on the Line, “violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created”. “You still believe in God, Bonox?” Dorrigo asks one of his men. “Dunno, Colonel. It’s human beings I’m starting to wonder about.”
Though Dorrigo doubts the power of memory, after the war his memory pursues all the repatriated personnel of the camps, including Nakamura as he huddles in squalor in a ruined capital, evading a war crimes trial. As for Dorrigo’s men, in the new world of peace, survival is not survival. “They died off quickly, strangely, in car crashes and suicides and creeping diseases.” Impulsively, in memory of Darky Gardiner and in an inchoate wish to affirm freedom, a group of Dorrigo’s men attack the fish tanks in a Hobart fish shop and put the fish back into the sea at Constitution Dock.
Dorrigo himself lingers on in the Australian army into peacetime. “It’s everyday living that does us in,” an officer tells him. He returns not to Amy, but to a daughter of the Melbourne establishment who insists on his real name, “Alvyn”. Their marriage is dutiful, doomed, yet perpetual, a “conspiracy of experience”. Both Dorrigo and Nakamura seem to others to be actors in the world outside the prison camp, but it is memory of the Line that dominates and consumes them. “Through the decades following the war,” Flanagan writes of Dorrigo, “he felt his spirit sleeping, 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.”
Flanagan’s novel is a grand examination of what it is to be a good man and a bad man in the one flesh and, above all, of how hard it is to live after survival. The cancer-ridden Nakamura is fascinated by the goodness of his wife and struggles to match it to the savagery of the Line. The middle-aged rawness of Dorrigo and Nakamura’s lives is nearly as painful to read about as the bush surgery of the prison camp.
To say Flanagan creates a rich tapestry is to overly praise tapestries. One would notice, if not swept along by the tale, that the allocation of time to characters, the certainty of the narration, the confidence to pause and then lunge on, to play with time, are all bravura accomplishments. We don’t notice, though. Flanagan is too good to let us.
• Thomas Keneally’s latest book is Shame and the Captives (Sceptre). To order The Narrow Road to the Deep North for £13.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
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