“On the bedside table by the living Buddha, now dead, was an old copy of Basho’s great travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Hashimoto opened it to a page marked with a dry blade of grass. Days and months are travellers of eternity, he read. So too the years that pass by.” (Last book read before death by a WWII Japanese commander of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North)
Richard Flanagan’s father was one of nearly 3,000 Australian POWs who worked on what became known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway in World War II. Flanagan’s father survived. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the death toll are guesses: about 180,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 Allied POWs labored on the railway under inhuman conditions battling cholera, starvation, and beatings. Some 90,000 perished, including over 12,000 Allied POWs. Over 100 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes, and 32 were sentenced to death.
I’m partial to WWII novels, but I don’t know much about the Pacific theater of the war, and next to nothing about the prisoners of war who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway. I’m so glad I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and encountered Flanagan’s extraordinary writing, but do not attempt it unless you can stomach brutally explicit prose about hellish conditions.
An Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, tries to save as many of the men under his command as he can, but his efforts are mostly futile. We see Dorrigo as a young boy in Tasmania, as a young soldier in an affair with his uncle’s wife who is the love of his life, as a prisoner of war, and as an older, successful, but deeply scarred surgeon and war hero.
There are several moving, intimate, stream-of-consciousness portrayals of other Australian POWs under Dorrigo’s command as well. Especially riveting is a scene in which the Japanese commanders, cruel and relentless in their mission to get the railroad built, discuss the fine points of haiku. Flanagan follows these men after the war, too, those who managed to have others take the fall for their crimes, and their amazingly clear consciences after the war.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize and has received many excellent reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is more mixed in her review: she feels that Amy, Dorrigo’s lover, should have been excised from the book for the sake of unity and coherence; she describes Flanagan’s writing about the love affair as “treacly prose,” whereas I found many of these passages beautiful. I disagree with her assessment here.
Have you ever thoroughly loved a book or movie only to encounter a respected critic who points out how seriously deficient or flawed is the thing you absolutely love? At this link is an especially vicious review in the London Review of Books. Flanagan must have poured his heart and soul into writing about a terrible time that his father survived, and he spent years working on the novel. This negative review is not reasoned literary criticism that I value or trust, and I wonder what motivates the critic. Sometimes I think critics analyze so much creative work they become jaded, unable to approach a novel or movie in a fresh, unbiased way.
By the way, I don’t consider my blog posts to be book reviews or literary criticism. My intention is to write about how a book affects me, personally, or how I think it might affect you, the reader, or why it may be especially significant in some way. If I don’t feel a book is well written, or if it doesn’t speak to me in some strong way, I don’t write about it here.
I’ll leave you with a passage I especially love, about POWs newly home from the war:
“He brought the fish and chips to their table, then filled some small glass tumblers behind the counter with red wine and brought them out too. Then he sat with them. As they ate, he let them talk. When they flagged he talked of how such a winter meant it would be a good summer for apricots, yes….Then he started up about his own life….How people told him coming to his fish shop made them happy. He hoped that was true. I really do, he said. That’s a life….The old Greek made his own coffee for them – little cups, thick, black and sweet – and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made….The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good….”
Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in the 17th century, is a classic work of haibun, which melds haiku with prose. It makes for excellent reading alongside Flanagan’s contemporary novel.
Have you ever encountered scathing criticism of writing that you love? How does it make you feel? Does it alter or influence your opinion of the work?