I never had, still don't have, the kind of money required to pack my bags and fly away to the many captivating spots of nature to heal from bad memories, or meet men and women, bond with them, strive for experiences that distract us. I even never had too many friends. And whichever friends were there I couldn't bring up before them my personal struggles for discussion. Therefore, since a very young age, to deal with my ghosts I've always turned to cinema, to books, to writers who could tell me stories, make me meet characters whose choices in life were as bad, show me that often man suffers, loses love, falls into the abyss of solitude and that his life is still worth something, atleast of becoming a story, despite terrible things happening in them all the time.
To deal with the aftermath of a relationship, unforgettable and impossible in equal parts, I started to look for a book with the hope I mentioned, to find my story in its pages, only to be torn between two Booker winning masterpieces. Coetze's Disgrace and Flanagan's ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I went for the latter simply because of the subject it seemed to be about. I read, reread its single liner blurb which went “In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier”. Once I read this, I found it hard to be able to look beyond Flanagan’s novel. Hence, it was not just because it had bagged the Booker in 2014 that the book found its way onto my shelf and into my heart.
The story of TNRTTDN is an unmitigated account of the atrocity perpetrated on the captives of the Burma death railway. Flanagan describes it in the following words “For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line. Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the line and the rest of humanity. Or perhaps only one sort: the men who survived the Line. Or perhaps, in the end, even this is inadequate. Dorrigo Evans was increasingly haunted by the thought that it was only the men who died on the line. He feared that only in them was the terrible perfection of suffering and knowledge that made one fully human”
As the railway is being constructed by hundreds of thousands of slaves, they are forced to work no matter how close to starvation they are and no matter how sick they are. The slaves are beaten for hours on end. They suffer from cholera and have to walk miles through the jungle before they start work, often day and night. Towards the end some are crawling or dying. Thus, Flanagan’s protagonist has to deal with two colossal and perpetual events of tragedy, the casualties of the war and his lost love. The first one, the war, is everywhere in Flanagan's novel. You live, suffer and die with the POWs. You go through their starvation and share their desperate clinging on to each other in misery. You feel the peeling of flesh under the whip and the fatal entry of bullet when they fall. But their favourite doctor, who is saving them all the time, is facing another war within, the memories of his momentous relationship with Amy. The recounting of that short experience is incredibly detailed. In those few pages Flanagan ensures that his readers understand why even a short, momentary experience can command our discretion long after it is over.
Dorrigo Evans is soon to be married to Ella, but when his division is shipped out he is deep in love with Amy, the lovely wife of his uncle Keith. Dorrigo's brief affair with Amy haunts him for the rest of his life. The memories of her expressions, her beauty spot over her lips, their love making. They never set him free even when he marches through war and tends to ghastly wounds and diseases of the prisoners.
For Dorrigo’s longing for Amy, Flanagan writes “Dorrigo’s life at the King of Cornwall (his uncle’s hotel where he met Amy), which was measured in hours and which could have added up to no more than a few weeks, seemed to be the only life he had ever lived. Everything else was an illusion over which he passed as a shadow, unconnected, unconcerned, only angry when that other life, the other world wished to make claim on him, demanding that he act or think about something, anything other than Amy’.
I believe that profound art is often sourced to suffering. So when I was greatly moved by TNRTTDN, this belief I subscribe to only got strengthened when I came to know that Flanagan's father was a prisoner in Burma himself who died the day Flanagan finished his novel. The author has made it clear that the book is a tribute to his father.
If you have ever felt love that was so deep reaching and powerful and compelling that it turned all those fiercely burning passions of your life into mere warmth of candle flame, if you have known of the kind of love which wraps itself like skin around your soul, if you have then had to live with no possibility of ever getting that love and in the middle of despair if you have had to deliver yourself to things which took you very far away from it, things that owned your body without any meaning or heart, till you realized that there was nothing you could have done, then Richard Flanagan's 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' is a must read for you.
The book has made something beautiful out of things terrible as war and loss. By the time you would have arrived at the final passages you’d have, with a lump in your heart agreed with the rest of the blurb which says ‘Richard Flanagan’s savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man come of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost’. This book might just convince you that life is more than happiness, a normal existence and being free. It is about having to break at life’s hands and still strive to live. That as individuals, we have to walk very narrow roads with great depths. The haiku of Kobayashi Issa mentioned in one of its pages will suffice to hint at the revelation one might encounter while and after reading TNRTTDN.
"In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers”