The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“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)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverRichard 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….”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North illustration

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverBasho’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?

 

 

Discovering Argentina

What we did on our fall vacation:

Immersed ourselves in spring.

Each day balmier than the one before, with occasional chilly rain. Crescent moon from another point of view, an unfamiliar family of constellations in the night sky.

In Lelé de Troya’s green room (there are also red, yellow, and blue rooms), Malbec by candlelight, the Beatles, two couples celebrating 25th wedding anniversaries reminiscing about disco dancing in NYC, leisure suits, and long-ago first jobs. Finishing dessert at midnight while the rest of Buenos Aires just gets started.

Talking with many a taxi driver (Claudio, Lila, Juan, and a few more whose names I don’t recall) thanks to one of our foursome’s exuberant Spanish. (Buenas noches! Cómo estás? Yo hablo español pero no comprendo nada. Háblenos de Buenos Aires.) Our drivers are warm, friendly, opinionated, proud of their city but wanting things to be better, eager to speak with us. Trying to follow their rapid-fire Spanish, wishing we understood more.

Japanese Gardens

Jardin Japonés, Buenos Aires

Spanish haiku in the Japanese Gardens, a circle of Spanish-speaking Japanese women deep in conversation under a silk floss tree.

Reading in bed Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, disliking his essay on Argentina in which he contends people here strive for the wealth and sophistication of Europe, but are only pale imitations of it. True for some, perhaps, but I see down-to-earth, hard-working Argentinians and a genuine, vibrant culture that is what it is.

Watching amazing tango dancers, learning the tango was partly invented by Italians who emigrated to La Boca, a working class section of Buenos Aires. Never before realizing the inventiveness and variation possible within the structure of tango.

More reading in bed after a long day walking the city, Lawrence Thornton’s novel, Imagining Argentina. Letting myself imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to have one’s teen-age daughter stolen away to the pampas in the night, never to be seen again. Recalling the crosses and banners of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo we’d seen.

Iguazu evenings, drinking Caipirinhas in the secret garden of our bed and breakfast run by a photographer from Calcutta who has spent forty years in Argentina. John cares deeply about local flora and fauna and plans to offer walk-about tours to teach people about the region’s ecology. Meeting Natalie (British), Christina (from Mexico, now British) Helen and Andre (British and South African, respectively, now living in Austria). And some Argentinians from Buenos Aires who say the middle class here is disappearing. Does that sound familiar?

In Iguazu National Park, hundreds, thousands of butterflies: deep purple on brown, art deco, Italian modern. They hitch a ride on our hats, sleeves, shoulders. Clusters of mint green and yellow-winged moths delicate as parchment, scattering like confetti in the wind. Monkeys, coatis, lizards, turtles, toucans.

Garganta del Diablo

Garganta del Diablo

Ending our trip viewing some of the 300 waterfalls in Iguazu. People from all over the world come to this remote place where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Standing before the immense, overwhelming Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), welcoming the cool spray after our subtropical hike. Like Andre said one evening after he and Helen braved a boat that takes you as close as you can get to one of the biggest waterfalls, every particle of your body awakens.

You feel totally alive.

Waterfalls at Iguazu

If you’ve been to Argentina or can suggest good books about this beautiful country, please tell us in the comments below.

Zen in Nature

I was interested to read “Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature” in the New York Times today. David Haskell’s new book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature sounds wonderful. Plan to add it to my reading list.

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