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The Narrow Road to the Deep North


MisterHobgoblin
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Dorrigo Evans is a war hero. Not only did he survive the Burma Railway, he inspired his fellow POWs as they battled for survival on The Line. He is an old man, doing the speaker circuit. Everyone he meets is happy to see him; everyone he meets is awed. Dorrigo is the personification of the Australian establishment.

But rewind to his days of youth; his training to be a doctor; his enlistment in the Army and training outside Adelaide; his life and his loves. Dorrigo started out as a mere mortal; a regular guy with his virtues balanced out by his failings. He has a touch of self-depracating arrogance, but what good doctor doesn't? He seems to have no great ambition and is not driven to enlist through any obvious sense of duty or patriotism. Indeed, based on his early encounters with both friendly and enemy soldiers, he seems to reserve his most withering comments for the British.

Then, the moment makes the man. As he and hundreds of fellow Australians are captured by the Japanese, he finds himself in a slave labour camp, hewing at rock with a hammer and chisel to make way for a supply railway from Siam to Burma. This is the major part of the novel. Richard Flanagan exposes us to the full horror of the conditions and their treatment at the hands of the Japanese officers and Korean guards. It's graphic. But the real interest comes from seeing the human side of the assorted prisoners and their guards. The narrative point of view switches around to give each of the characters a chance to come alive. In a film, the Aussie Diggers would all be strong jawed heroes. But here we see an assortment ranging from the naively energetic; through to the selfishly lazy; a guy learning Mein Kampf by heart; various shades of racism; bullies; jokers; friends. It's a real mixed bag and some of these heroes are not nice people at all.

By the same token, it would have been easy to portray the Japanese as mindless sadists. Sure, they were brutal, but we are given an insight into the values and thought processes that went behind the brutality. Major Nakamura is portrayed almost as a victim himself, forced to deliver the completion of the railway to absurd deadlines with insufficient resources. Whilst he attaches no value to the lives of prisoners, he is concerned only with completion of The Line and duty to his superiors and the Emperor. He has contempt for prisoners of war - it would have been nobler to die in battle - he does not hate them. His crime is one of indifference. His vicious guard, the Goanna, has even less emotional investment in the project and only lives for his pay slip.

The novel follows the post-war lives of some of the characters too - well, those who survive. We see the transition of ordinary people into heroes or villains according to the fortune of their side in the war. We find them largely indifferent to their destiny. Yet Richard Flanagan does not portray their fate as luck. Dorrigo, the hero, has a further chance to prove his mettle which he seizes instinctively. He really is a hero, albeit one who spends most of his time being rather ordinary and rather alone. Perhaps it is the medical training, perhaps it is his complicated life, but Dorrigo bears more than a passing resemblance to Yuri Zhivago.

The themes in the novel are epic; the story is complex but always coherent. But also, the narrative can be light, humorous but it can also be heartbreakingly sad. The scenes are depicted perfectly; the imagery is so right it is like looking at a photograph. The novel may lack some of the tricks and ingenuity of other modern novels and, in a way, it feels a little old fashioned. But it achieves what it sets out to do with perfection. It's a longish novel, but it holds the attention; the reader almost daren't look away.

The next time I buy an ANZAC badge or Legacy torch I will be thinking of Dorrigo and his real life counterparts.

 

*****

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Have started in on this book again as a member of another forum is interested in discussing it. I'm about a quarter of the way into it and am getting the terrible sense of futility in building the railroad. The writing is so descriptive it pulls you in and it's a relief when there is a change of scene, albeit temporary.

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Have started in on this book again as a member of another forum is interested in discussing it. I'm about a quarter of the way into it and am getting the terrible sense of futility in building the railroad. The writing is so descriptive it pulls you in and it's a relief when there is a change of scene, albeit temporary.

 

I think the building of the railway was not futile - I believe it is still in use as the main route through Thailand. The problem that the novel identifies is that the Japanese officers overcommitted in terms of completion dates and as the war went less well, their masters demanded even more, even quicker.

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Maybe ultimately it wasn't futile but at the point I was at in the book when I posted it seemed like an impossibility with the lack of tools, the condition of the prisoners, the sickness, the rain, the Japanese commander having to rely on amphetamines just to feel normal enough to continue with his work - it all felt quite bleak.  Now I'm into the obsessive love between Amy and Dorrigo and this part sounds like a steamy love novel although couched in poetic and other-worldly language and in saying this I realize it sounds cynical, however, I have to admit I'm caught up in it.

Edited by momac
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This book has so much in it to digest I will have to think about it for a while to try to assemble thoughts about it.  Definitely a book worth reading and thoroughly captivating.  I put it down last night around 11:00 p.m. with the intent of going to bed.  Instead I went back downstairs and read for another hour.  Just finished it about an hour ago.

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Some thoughts about the book, not anywhere near as concise as Mr. HG's, but just what came to mind as I was sitting at the computer:

 

 

 

 

Flanagan's writing is extremely powerful and descriptive although his character, Dorrigo, seemed to do quite a bit of philosophizing and the writing gets a little bogged down at times. Events and circumstances seemed to happen to him, for instance, he hadn't planned to be the 'Big Fella' among the Australian prisoners, but being tall and being a doctor, he was the one the prisoners seemed to look up to and he did assume the responsibility of talking to the commander, Major Nakamura, at the camp to get medicine, better conditions, food and rest for the prisoners, often with very little result. In this regard he was the hero although he would be the last to admit to that. The conditions at the camp were brutal, horrifyingly so. The Japanese had no regard for the prisoners and looked down on them, their feeling was that they should have died honourably rather than allowing themselves to be captured. This, of course, didn't stop the Japanese from using them to build the railroad and everyone was required to work whether or not they were injured, sick or not even able to stand, work could still be done while there was still life in the body. The commander was under a time constraint to get the railroad built and was prepared to beat and brutalize the men into performing the work. The conditions in the jungle, the rain, the sickness, the beatings, and the sheer brutality of the guards was dehumanizing and yet the human spirit seemed to survive, men helping other men, looking out for each other and, of course, the laggardly types who marched or rather struggled into the jungle and hid out for the day doing nothing and just showing up at the end of the day for the head count. I found all of this really hard going but it also pointed out what human beings are capable of. The writing is raw and powerful when describing various events in the prison camp and it's hard to read without feeling really depressed about how brutal humans can be.

 

One small part that showed the Japanese in a little different light was the discussion between Major Nakamura, and a visiting dignitary, his immediate superior. They have an evening of discussing Japanese poetry and it portrays them in a gentler manner.

 

Then in contrast we had the prior obsessive love affair between Amy and Dorrigo which was of the steamy love story type writing, mentioning all the differing locations where their intense lovemaking took place. The fact that he had seen her previously in the bookstore with the camelia in her hair and all men were following her around but she only had eyes for Dorrigo almost sounds like something out of 'some enchanted evening'. Added to that she just turns out to be married to his uncle so Dorrigo has an excuse to visit. That was a coincidence which was a bit jarring to me. I'm not sure that it really added anything to the story line except to perceive Dorrigo in a more passionate light, which light became dimmed the longer he had to be in the jungle when he was having difficulty remembering her face.

 

When we see him as an elderly man doing the celebrity circuit he still seems as though he's not sure how this all happened to him. In the meantime he has married Ella although he doesn't love her but it seemed the right thing to do, another circumstance which seemed to befall him. Then we have his dalliance with several women, he in his late 70's still trying to recapture perhaps the passion he had with Amy, but it was puzzling why he continued with the search as he didn't seem to get any pleasure out of it. Ella must have been a long-suffering wife unless she was quite happy that he took his attempted pleasures elsewhere.

 

I found the ending satisfying when he goes to rescue his family from the fire. He has finally found something to cling to after all his dallying around.

 

I'm not sure about reading further books by him if they are as draining.

 

Edited by momac
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Interesting thoughts Momac. Don't be afraid of other Richard Flanagan books - the two I have read were significantly less intense. 

A great book and certainly very intense. Some of the scenes describing the building of the railway are very haunting, I found myself horrified and yet unable to stop reading.Made me look at the recent Gallipoli/Anzac commemorations in a whole new light.

Will certainly read some of his other books.

Edited by Clavain
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  • 2 weeks later...

I have just finished this novel and, as Clavain has noted, it is very haunting.  When I read the chapters describing the life ('life' -  that's a joke) on the Line I could not read more than 30 pages at a time as I felt so involved and haunted by the cruelty, the suffering and the characterisation. 

 

Dorrigo seemed to be more intensively 'alive' in the death camp than in civilian life except of course with his love affair with Amy.  I liked the portrayal of the complexities of the 'heroic' man.  And that applies to Nakamura too. 

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I seem to have completely stalled on this book.  Got about 65 pages in but it was simply not engaging me.  Something I found a little off-putting was the fact that Dorrigo Evans is constantly referred to AS Dorrigo Evans, rather than just Dorrigo, somehow for me distancing the character from me as a reader.  Does that make sense?  Also found that none of the conversational aspects appeared in quotation marks, just as a part of the text, so it was not always obvious (well to me at least) that someone was supposed to be saying something; there was no noticeable change in the text.

Maybe I was not in the right frame of mind for this one when I started it, I had not picked it up in a few days having reached page 65 or so, and when I did pick it up again last night I went back over about the previous twenty pages and none of it registered at all!

 

Perhaps I will try something else for now and come back to this one later.

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I seem to have completely stalled on this book.  Got about 65 pages in but it was simply not engaging me.  Something I found a little off-putting was the fact that Dorrigo Evans is constantly referred to AS Dorrigo Evans, rather than just Dorrigo, somehow for me distancing the character from me as a reader.  Does that make sense?  Also found that none of the conversational aspects appeared in quotation marks, just as a part of the text, so it was not always obvious (well to me at least) that someone was supposed to be saying something; there was no noticeable change in the text.

Maybe I was not in the right frame of mind for this one when I started it, I had not picked it up in a few days having reached page 65 or so, and when I did pick it up again last night I went back over about the previous twenty pages and none of it registered at all!

 

Perhaps I will try something else for now and come back to this one later.

Totally agree and felt a little the same but persevere you will not regret it.  

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I'm in the minority here. Didn't care for the book or the main character. Also, I was not very receptive to reading another story about a Japanese POW camp after Unbroken.

Edited by Kerry
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I'm in the minority here. Didn't care for the book or the main character. Also, I was not very receptive to reading another story about a Japanese POW camp after Unbroken.

 

I'm not sure Richard Flanagan was fishing in the same pond as Laura Hillenbrand (the author of Unbroken). If anything, it is books like Unbroken that Flanagan was reacting against in portraying an accidental and flawed hero. 

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Finished this a few days ago, having re-started it on the advice and encouragement of other BGOers, and I am glad that I did go back to it.  I really must have been in the wrong frame of mind when I first picked it up and then abandoned it around 60 pages in, as when I started it afresh hardly anything at all of those pages resonated with me; it was simply as though I had never read them!

Anyway.....my initial irritation with the use of Dorrigo Evans' full name all the way through the novel remained with me.  It was almost as if Mr Flanagan wanted to make sure I didn't confuse him with any other Dorrigos who may happen to wander into the story, and it continued to make me feel somewhat distanced from the character, but perhaps that is what Flanagan was aiming for, as Dorrigo (Evans) came across as an essentially lonely and detached individual, particularly in his non-wartime life.

Pre-war I thought the description of the developing love story between Dorrigo (Evans) and Amy was very atmospheric, from their first encounter among the dust motes in shafts of sunlight in the old book store to the continuing, forbidden, relationship in what felt to me as a reader like a very sultry environment. It always felt like a love story that was doomed not to achieve a happy conclusion, and so it proved ultimately.

 

I found it quite hard to warm to Dorrigo (Evans) as a central character.  He seemed to be more mentally alive when he was least physically alive, trying to survive and to help others survive in the hell-hole that was working on The Line.  The descriptions of the surroundings, the conditions in which they were forced to live, the illness, the beatings etc. were truly harrowing and once again with anything of this nature I found myself wondering if or how I might have fared....not well I guess. It was during this period that Dorrigo (Evans) displayed his heroic qualities, but I did find him to be less than heroic in other aspects of his life, most particularly I would say in his faithfulness to any woman, although I suppose that was because any other woman wasn't Amy.

 

What I also found interesting was the Japanese perspective of what was happening in Siam.  Whilst there is no doubting the brutality of the situation, for the Japanese commanders it was simply viewed as a necessity in order to achieve the Emperor's orders, that was all that mattered and it was of no consequence to them how that goal was attained.  Failure was not an option, it was all about honour for them and failure would only result in one way out for them as they saw it.

The POWs were seen merely as a resource, and they were viewed with contempt by the Japanese anyway for having allowed themselves to be taken prisoner, so they were not thought to be honourable themselves.

 

Away from the time and horrors of The Line, which I thought ended quite surprisingly abruptly, I found some of the accounts of the post-war lives of the POWs we had met there extremely moving.  Some dealt with return to "normal" life better than others, all returned to a life that had changed in the time they had been away, some returned to find previous loves now with different, new loves.  I am not ashamed to say that I shed a tear at the fate of Jimmy Bigelow's bugle; it had meant so much to him in the horrors of The Line, finding in his playing of it when laying comrades to rest some meaning and purpose, and I just found it immeasurably poignant that, after his passing, it ended up being sold for a few dollars in a garage sale of his bric-a-brac.

 

It was also interesting to learn of the post-war lives of the Japanese that we had encountered in the jungle.  They too were to return to a very different country than that which they had left behind, a country which had been defeated above all, and was now in a ravaged state. Over the years, however, their belief in what had taken place during the war never wavered.

 

I suspect that, having re-visited and finished this book, it may well turn out to be one of my best reads of 2015.  I can see why Kerry posted that she wasn't keen on Dorrigo (Evans) but overall I thought this was a very good book indeed; the further into it I got the more I found it hard to put down.

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