2. Flanagan’s, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ vs the Illiad

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

***Spoiler alert***

Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…

This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.

It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.

The cover of Richard Flanagan's The arrow Road to the Deep North over WWII newspaper articles and a map of Siam from before WWII.

With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.

The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.

Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.

But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.

Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.

A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.

Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.

In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.

Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?

More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?

Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.

For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book:

1.Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Tolstoy

1. What Authorship Question: Homer, Who, Shakespeare?

In my previous post I posed the question, could a computer differentiate between episodes of Dr Who that were under the artisitic guidance of Russell T. Davies and those of his successor, Steven Moffat. Supposedly a computer can recognize the hand of Shakepeare in Early Modern Literature. Actually, faith in such programs is so fervent that they are being used to pinpoint exactly which bits of Shakespeare, Shakespeare actually wrote and which bits belong in the chops of a horse.

Now, if you were writing this post and I was reading it, my immediate reaction would be that TV and Early Modern Playscripts use different storytelling techniques. That TV guides the majority of the viewer’s responses to a text through its clever use of mise-en-scene, editing, casting, and special effects. A playscript is a raw thing, yet to be basted and baked on a stage. The theatre’s audience, more difficult to lead. Computers can count words, their forms and usage in early modern texts: what are they to measure in an episode of Dr Who? An impossible comparison.

What if the arena were to be circumscribed? Could an essential parameter box in the ring? Could we take this parameter to be the writer’s underlying world view? To my mind there is an issue with counting words and their usage: the writer as an artist. The writer may have a preferred style, but doesn’t it change at all over the course of their writing careers? Doesn’t style develop over time? over experimentation? over admiration of others’ works? over response to their own? What of vaulting a mindblock or orchestrating a conceit?

Shakespeare isn’t the earliest writer to have his penmanship questioned. Homer shares the stigma with him. Homer has left two great epics, The Illiad and The Odyssey. Like Shakespeare, there is little of his life on historical record. We dont know the year or circumstances of the creation of either of his works. They are so different in style and content that it is believed that they must have been written at the beginning and the end of his career if he were to have written both of them. This begs the question, where are his transitional works?

Statue of Homer in Munich Statue of Homer in Munich

While The Illiad is a concentrated recount of the skirmishes of the last battle of the Trojan War, the Odyssey is a narrative of Oysseas (Ulysses) ten year-long journey home. Immediately we see a different approach to the treatment of the passage of time between the texts – one is broad ranging the other, very particular. In The Illiad, Homer identifies the players in the war through their families, allegiances, achievements and relationships to a particular god. The gods themselves are part of his narrative. No warrior is a statistic. No warrior fights alone. There is a sense that this history is told to honour the generals, the soldiers, their families, their communities and their gods. A pious reverence pervades the text. Those who will read him, will honour his gods and the gods will hear them.

The Odyssey is a different kind of yarn, spun and pulled out over the course of ten years. It could easily be retitled, Odysseas’ Seafaring Advenures. Unlike The Illiad, it focusses on one protagonist. This is Odysseas tale. It’s an ancient melodrama, romance, and thriller. But not a history. Odysseas is clearly the hero. The goddess Athena takes a personal interest in his domestic situation and his return home. She serves him. The goddess serves the mortal! Not to say she was a serving woman but this is not a war of nations.

There is a more light-hearted approach to The Odyssey. The family histories and relationships of the characters sailing with Odysseas are not given. The story is meant to move forward sprightly, and it does. It can be suspenceful and is engaging.The story of Odysseas’ journey is almost a story within a story. Yes, Calypso tells the tale but within the story of Telemachus and Penelope (his son and his wife respectively), the wanderings of our hero are a play within a play. There is a huge leap in innovation where storytelling is concerned.

Most importantly, the mindset, the attitude of the writer of The Illiad is very different to the attitude of the writer of The Odyssey, when it comes to the sanctity of life. There is a concern for the soldiers and a weight over their loss in one and a feeling that the sailors are mere pawns in the world of a good story in the other. In one, there is a sense of a battle veteran writing, in the other a good imagination. Were they from the same pen?

Statue of Homer, Munich

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