‘I HAVE JUST READ NEXT YEAR’S MILES FRANKLIN WINNER’
A frail humanity survives the unspeakable in this portrait of a flawed war hero, writes Geordie Williamson
IWAS halfway through The Narrow Road to the Deep North when I realised I was reading the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2014. In an increasingly strong year for local fiction, with several likely contenders yet to come, Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel arrives outsized, a freakish outlier. This is the book he has been promising readers since his 1994 debut, Death of a River Guide.
And while he has given us plenty in terms of literary ambition and imaginative reach since then, nothing could have prepared us for this immense achievement. In its historical breadth, its structural intricacy, its terrible and exquisite re-creation of the darkest moments of the Australian military experience, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is beyond comparison.
Or perhaps it isn’t. We’re almost too familiar with the literature of witness that emerged from World War II. In the Auschwitz testimony of Primo Levi, the journalism of Martha Gellhorn and Vasily Grossman, the memoirs of Keith Douglas, Laurens van der Post, even the Burma Railway sketches of midshipman Ray Parkin, a genre devoted to the recording of human suffering during those years has entered the historical record and stayed there, buttressed by the memory industry.
Treblinka, Changi, Tobruk, Kokoda: these sites have been absorbed into public memory, tamed by tourism. Objective accounts have shaded into myth as the decades draw us away from events, all of them presented under the unimpeachable rubric: Lest we forget.
To which prisoner-of-war surgeon Dorrigo Evans, the flesh-and-blood paradox at the heart of Flanagan’s novel, growls ‘‘ bullshit’’. It is an indeterminate moment in the early 1940s and he has just performed a failed amputation on a soldier in a jungle camp beside a ‘‘ Godforsaken railway in Siam’’, using pig guts as sutures and a salvaged handsaw.
As the patient’s corpse is loaded on to a funeral pyre alongside a body belonging to an amateur artist named Rabbit Hendricks, Evans’s surgical assistant, in reality a country GP, rescues the dead man’s sketchbook, insisting it be kept as a record of what happened in the camps. But Evans, his commanding officer, throws it back on the fire, furiously demurring: ‘‘ Do you know the poem, Bonox? It’s by Kipling. It’s not about remembering. It’s about forgetting — how everything gets forgotten.’’ Far-called, our navies melt away; On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, Lest we forget — lest we forget!
Flanagan’s reimagining of the Thai-Burma railway story proceeds in the light of this observation. The author revisits this moment and inhabits its characters in such a way as to tear away all the comfortable tropes from the literature of witness.
In this telling, nobility is a necessary lie, kindness a trap, survival a matter for lifelong guilt. Dorrigo Evans, whose consciousness is our principal window on events, could be a portrait of Weary Dunlop in photographic negative. This is no grandee but a country boy from Tasmania, charming, driven, a talented if cavalier surgeon, yet oddly empty within. He does not believe in God or in his growing reputation among the men under his care. He sees their veneration as a burden that obliges him into a decency and self-sacrifice alien to his true, selfish impulses.
To aid us in understanding this complex man, as well as those around him, the author employs a time-scheme that operates like a soprano’s coloratura, a dazzling run of images and ideas that can leap through an entire lifetime in a matter of sentences. If the process is at first disorienting, later it is intensely moving; the tight juxtaposition of peacetime and conflict is of a piece with the PoWs’ current delirium and later trauma. So removed from one another are these vastly different realities that, for the survivors, neither comfortable suburban plenty or jungle privation comes to seem wholly authentic.
For Dorrigo Evans, however, there is one immutable fact: his love for a young barmaid named Amy, the second wife of his publican uncle. Their affair during the months leading up to his entry into the war is perverse in its psychology and heartbreaking in its unfolding. That something so fleeting as desire should become the fulcrum on which Dorrigo Evans’s life turns seems absurd. And yet there is a grandeur in this relationship, broken off by the war. It proceeds in sympathy with Stendhal’s dictum: ‘‘ The only unions which are legitimate forever are those ruled by a genuine passion.’’
It is a measure of Flanagan’s refusal to submit to the usual narrative niceties that even the hope of renewing this love after the war is taken from Dorrigo Evans. Those portions of the novel dealing with the railway are almost too brutal to tolerate. The cruelty of the guards, the ravages of cholera, the constant, gnawing hunger, the nakedness and filth are all brought into tight focus by the novelist’s imagination and held there, until Evans arrives at a viewpoint of seemingly total nihilism: For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater then the civilisations it created, greater then any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was the history of violence.
The final paradox is this pessimism does not traduce the character and achievements of those building the railway. It rather frees them from the cant surrounding the experience of war, allowing a frail but true humanity, something irreducible and beautiful, to emerge. Wilfred Owen wrote of his Great War verse: ‘‘ My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’’ Flanagan’s triumph is to find poetry without any pity at all.
Allied PoWs toil on the Thai-Burma railway at Hellfire Pass in Thailand