A frail hu­man­ity sur­vives the un­speak­able in this por­trait of a flawed war hero, writes Geordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - 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

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