A narrative of war, love, haiku

In Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan adapts the form of the novel of imprisonment to explore the takes the extreme cases of Australian hostility towards others and the question of evil in human behaviour. His chosen field is the enmity between Australian Prisoners of War and their Japanese guards on the Burma railway during the Second World War. Although both prisoners and guards shared a common deprivation, neither side found any room to respect the other. The captors despised the prisoners for having surrendered, while the captives despised the pitiless cruelty.

The novel is far more than a war novel. The wartime experience in fact occupies only one of it five sections, although it is alluded to throughout. Flanagan acknowledges that in writing it he was partly driven by his need to understand his own father’s life as a prisoner on the death railroad. He does this by constructing a fictitious world that partly occupies the same time and space as his father’s experiences. In this world, Dorrigo Evans is an Australian army doctor on the Burma railway. Its title is taken from a work by the Japanese poet Basho, a haibun – a narrative in prose and verse – that is admired by one of the more repulsive guards on the railway, the camp commandant Nakamura.

After the Great War, narratives of the war, whether as memoirs or fiction, came to follow a clear pattern that could be summed up as innocence, betrayal, disillusion. This pattern emerges in Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy beginning with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and the Australian Martin Boyd’s When Blackbirds Sing. In each of these the innocence of youth is conflated with the beauty of the countryside, so that the induction into war becomes also a betrayal of the nation and its ideals. The slaughter and chaos of battle are emblematic of an industrial system that robs the individual of agency and destroys even the possibility of humanity. The return takes the shattered individual back to a society that can no longer sustain the men whose experience keeps them separate.

After the Second World War, a related genre of narratives of captivity emerged. These follow the same pattern of youthful innocence and immersion in war, but there they diverge to a place where the individual is subject to deliberate abuse, loses all power but must keep going. The pattern shifts from the epic of battle to the journey of quest, where the hero is trapped in a slough of despondency. At its lightest, this genre comprises heroic tales of capture, resistance and escape. At its strongest, it includes memoirs of the Holocaust, and later the Gulags, where the life of the individual lacks even the desperate coherence found in soldiers’ accounts. The prisoners in the death camps lose all power at the moment of entry, but must find some pattern in a situation where they are forced to go on living and working. The camp becomes a hell where the only hierarchy of suffering can be endurance. Yet endurance does bring meaning. As Ivan Denisovich says, ‘It has been “Almost a happy day”’. Primo Levy claims even more: ‘I was also helped by the determination … to recognise always … in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus to avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck’. Flanagan’s novel is a variation on this genre.

Although the central episode of Dorrigo’s life is his time on the death railway, the novel is framed by the work of the poet Basho. Its title is taken from his ‘great haibun’, the work of prose and poetry that tells of the poet’s wandering through Japan towards a place normally regarded as harsh and desolate. Basho was in search of enlightenment and detachment from this world. In the death camp on the Burma railway, the Japanese commander Major Nakamura and a visiting colonel see it as expressing ‘the genius of the Japanese spirit’, which is also expressed in their vision of the railroad, ‘delivering victory in the invasion of India, … the idea of the whole world under one roof, with the beauty of Basho’s verse.’

Even in Kyoto
When I hear the cuckoo
I long for Kyoto.

This memory clears Nakamura’s mind of the doubts roused in it by an earlier talk he had had with Dorrigo, who complained that the Japanese conduct was both inhumane and inefficient. Yet the conversation between the Japanese officers that leads them to this beatific vision had begun with the colonel recalling his training days, when he was taught to kill. Scrawny Chinese prisoners had been lined up, blindfolded and kneeling. An officer draws his sword, pours some water on it, and demonstrates. ‘He spread his legs, raised the sword, and swung it down hard. The head seemed to leap away. The blood was still spurting in two fountains …’  As the trainee takes his turn, all he can think of is that he might make a fool of himself. But what he later remembers of the incident is the water on the sword blade, the clean colours in the severed neck, and a great and terrible feeling that he had been reborn. This inhuman perfection is the other side of the beauty of Basho’s poetry. The colonel expresses it in his own variation on Basho:

Even in Manchukuo
when I see a neck
I long for Manchukuo.

The contrasting images of the cuckoo’s song and the bleeding neck suggest the pattern of Flanagan’s novel. It is not a series of episodes through which the narrator matures to wisdom, but a series of moments, each to be accepted on its own terms, which constitute Dorrigo’s life in its totality. There is no narrative to reconcile the contrasting facets of humanity shown in the haiku the colonel quotes and the one he composes. The conversation between the Japanese offices comes between episodes of a passionate love affair that is kindled between Dorrigo and Amy, a woman he meets at an Adelaide gallery while he is in training for war service. This affair is interrupted by Dorrigo’s posting abroad and Amy’s reported death in a fire. Eventually, the narrator seems to settle for an imperfection that can include both Japan and Australia, loved and death, beauty and cruelty, without assimilating any one to the other.

The narrative of Flanagan’s novel is generally chronological, progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood and education before the war, the war itself, and his career, marriage and affairs after the war. At times if shifts rapidly back and forth between scenes from the death camp and memories of the love affair that had possessed him immediately before he embarked for war. But this narrative of a life does not reveal the patterns of learning and personal development we associate with this form. Rather, the story proceeds through a number of episodes that crystallise into images that together constitute Dorrigo’s full person. The stages of his life do not lead to some kind of maturity. Rather, his character is formed by accumulation. Each episode in his life remains outside time but within his being.

Each of the novel’s four sections is preceded by a haiku. The first introduces the section leading up to the war.

A bee
staggers out
of the peony

The second is an almost literal account of the climax of his love affair.

From that woman
on the beach, dusk pours out
across the evening waves.

The third precedes an account of the experience of the captives in the death camp on the Burma railway.

A world of dew
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.

The fourth introduces the return home of prisoners and gaolers, and of national and personal reconstruction.

This world of dew
Is only a world of dew –
And yet.

While the fifth is as close as we come to any statement of the novel’s meaning.

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers.

The section that follows looks back on the war from a longer perspective of time. It includes both a meeting between Dorrigo and his captors, Dorrigo’s sighting of Amy and his instant decision not to speak to her, and his rescue of his wife and children from a devastating Tasmanian bushfire.

The novel opens with a blinding, transcendent light that conveys him into a unity of welcoming women. Then, almost at the end of his life, his memory returns to the camps, and a crimson flower, shining in the midst of overwhelming darkness. This takes the reader back to the earlier memory, but that had been followed by a specific memory of Jacky Maguire, an old man of ‘maybe forty’, ‘sitting in the Evans’s small, dark kitchen, crying’. These tears anticipate the darkness that Dorrigo will wade through before he comes to that crimson flower. This darkness, too, is a part of the love story that goes on for ever, with ‘no peace and no hope’. Here Dorrigo lives in hell, ‘because that is love too.’ Yet in the story’s last sentence ‘he straightened backup and continued on his way’. In a sense, the whole novel has been answering the twin questions of what this way may be, and how he finds the strength to continue on it.

Between these two images, Flanagan gives the reader a series of snapshots from Dorrigo’s life. In his childhood, we see him in a cave in the bush, reading to his brother. On his second day in a new school, playing kick-for-kick, he takes a mark high above the pack.

Time slowed … He understood the ball dangling from the sun was his … he climbed into the full dazzle of the sun, above all the other boys … he felt the ball arrive in his hands, and he knew he could now begin to fall out of the sun …

The smell of eucalypt bark, the bold, blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost – all these things he was aware of, as he was of … the strange pure joy of being with others.

This moment of pure joy, when he feels with himself and others, and with the universe, provides a standard of perfection by which the rest of the book can be measured. In the love affair he has with Amy just before going off to war. The lovers come together in an ecstasy that obliterates the boundaries between them, between sea, sky and shore, and between spirit and flesh. They are submerged in the totality of the universe. Yet the cruelty of living intrudes when an eerie howl interrupts them. A large dog stands above them, a fairy penguin twitching in the blood-jagged drool of its slobbery mouth. Dorrigo returns to his love-making with an intensity that is an escape rather than a fulfilment.

After the love affair, Dorrigo is sent to the war in Syria. Here he encounters the comradeship formed by battle, but the central image is meaningless death. A soldier bringing them food offers some to an Arab boy, only for the two of them to be blown up by a stray shell. One of the Australians defies his mates and shoots an enemy pilot as he parachutes away from a blazing plane. Then we are taken to the East Indies, Singapore and the death rail, by way of British and Australian officers who seem incapable of understanding what has happened, and look on the ragged Australians with contempt. The Japanese, on the other hand, look on them simply as slaves beyond human consideration.

Flanagan insists that the novel is a love story, not a war story. The conversation between the two Japanese officers, with the colonel’s reminiscence of the beauty of beheading, comes between episodes from the love affair Dorrigo had enjoyed with Amy before his embarkation for war. Flanagan described his novel as a love story within a war story. Love, like life, is necessarily fleeting. The novel is about how both continue in human memory. Dorrigo feels shame as he recalls his wartime love affair. When after the war he visits in their homes the Japanese who committed the most horrible war crimes he finds they look back without guilt or shame. Then they were carrying out the will of the Emperor, but now they are living lives that they hope will make them good men. Tenji Nakamura, the camp commandant who presided over the beating that continues to dominate Dorrigo’s memories, becomes thoughtful, kinder towards his family, neighbours, friends and even strangers. He is, he decides, ‘a good man. And this thought gave him immense comfort and a tranquillity in the face of his cancer that amazed all who knew him’. Dorrigo achieves no such peace, but, ironically, Flanagan’s father may have.

In various interviews that Flanagan has given, and in his authorial acknowledgements, he explains that he has drawn on his fathers’ stories, as well as writings by, amongst others, EE ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Kevin Fagan, ‘in particular, his account of his selection of one hundred POWs for a forced march, which I follow closely, some of which is used almost verbatim’. This testifies to the historical accuracy of the setting and events of the novel, without suggesting that it is in any simple way history turned into fiction. Even to call it a historical novel, while true in the sense that it deals with an episode of Australian war history, ignores its relevance to the present. Moreover, Flanagan chooses to present Dorrigo Evans not simply as a fictional figure through whom we view the unfolding of a particular history, but as an individual who has endured the same history as Dunlop or as Flanagan senior, but has an independent existence. Like Flanagan Senior, he is born and educated in Tasmania, but like Dunlop he becomes a doctor, not a teacher. The book describes how he finds in the present an urgent need, not to recall the past but to understand what meaning it has for him. In this past, the most significant event is not the horrors of the railway but the guilt he feels over a lover he abandoned and a marriage that he could never fulfil. The resolution his conflicts apparently comes at another moment of history, the 1967 Tasmanian bushfires, although the age of Dorrigo’s children at this time suggest the author has brought it forward a few years. In the fire, he, his wife and children for the first time become a family:

The tormented, hopeless feeling who lived together in a love not yet love, nor yet not; an unshared life shared; a conspiracy of affections, illnesses, tragedies, jokes and labour; a marriage – the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings.

A family.

This could have been the conclusion of the novel, the final meaning of Dorrigo’s life. Yet it is not. He has still to return in memory to Burma, to the death march, and in a kind of after death experience, to his lover. He also has a moment when a blinding light returns to the world of women into which he had been born.

As Dorrigo dies, he recalls a visual poem he had once seen – a single brush stroke drawn by the Japanese writer Shisui when he was asked for a death poem. It is a Mandala. Now, we are told, he at last understands its meaning – but the text offers us only Dorrigo’s last words – a nonsense that nevertheless recalls the logic, if not the tranquillity, of the Zen haikus: ‘Advance forward, gentleman. Charge the windowsill.’ In the moment of his death, he goes back to the POW camp, and to what proved to be false news of his lover’s death. These prompt the realisation that ‘the love story would go on and on,’ while he ‘would live in hell, because love is that also.’ Almost his last memory is of a crimson flower, shining in the midst of overwhelming darkness, an image associated with his lost love but incompatible with the kind of love represented by his wife and family. His only truth is neither in the past or the future, but in a present that contains both. This is also the only conclusion the novel offers to the appalling horrors of the death railway.

Just before Dorrigo’s death, the novelist takes us back to the postwar years of Jimmy Bigelow, the bugler who stood by Dorrigo in the hospital and was one of those he had to select for the death march. Dorrigo remembers how, before they were marched off, Jimmy led them as one by one they came forward, shook Dorrigo’s hand and thanked him. When some years later, Jimmy’s daughter asked him what the war had been like for him, all he could do was play the Last Post. ‘That’s all I know … That’s about all anyone needs to know.’ From then, the war fades in his memory, until he lives entirely in the present, in the pleasures of wind and rain, the marvel of dawn before a hot day, friendship and the smiles of strangers, and the mysterious flight and beauty of the rosellas, wrens and honeyeaters, the birds he cares for. These little things offer him the alternative to the horrors of the war or the desolation that Dorrigo knows despite his family and his growing professional achievements. Unlike Dorrigo, Jimmy leaves only fleeting memories when he dies, but they both achieve the same acceptance of life, of the eternal circle that is the antithesis of a line and leads to no destination.

From the beginning, the narrator portrays a life that seems composed of moments. An epigraph from Paul Celan, ‘Mother, they write poems’, suggests both that words can give meaning and that meaning is elusive. This is followed by an epigraph to the first section, this one taken from Basho:

A bee
Staggers out
Of the peony.

A few pages further on, he reproduces a poem by Shishui. This consists of a single brush stroke encompassing a single circle, a mandala with a break. ‘This, the narrator explains, rolls through Dorrigo’s sub-conscious as a ‘contained void, an endless mystery … the great wheel, the antithesis of the line … The obol left in the mouth of the dead to pay the ferryman.’

The epol ties us all to the great wheel of existence, but reveals no universal harmony. Rather, the common fate remains individual for each person. Once imagined in this way, Australia’s history becomes a source of fear and excitement, passion and lassitude, but leaves no room for the antagonisms and hatreds that prevent individuals living out the full possibilities off their own lives, their own haiku.

John McLaren

John McLaren started writing for Overland in 1957. He is the author of three books on education and eight on literature. His most recent publication is Melbourne: City of Words.

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