For our July meeting, we read “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner by Richard Flanagan. The author dedicates the book to his father, or “Prisoner san byaku san jú go (335)”, which we’re assuming is the prisoner number his father was given by the Japanese military. This was a tough book to read. The main character, Dorrigo Evans, is a Tasmanian (Australian) working class kid risen up to the ranks of doctor, joining the military during the second World War, when he ends up (after fighting in Syria, North Africa, and other places) as a POW of the Japanese Army in Burma, building the Bangkok – Burma railway. We hear his story from youth to old age, but the vast majority of the book takes place in the prisoner camps under unimaginable conditions.
I’m copying the first paragraph from Wikipedia here to give some context, because I can’t really describe adequately the horrors we read about:
"The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Burma–Siam Railway, the Thailand–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre (258 mi) railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon). The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later in 1957.
Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Southeast Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Javanese, Malayan Tamils of Indian origin, Burmese, Chinese, Thai and other Southeast Asians, forcibly drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army to work on the railway, died in its construction — including 100,000 Tamils alone.[better source needed] 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.
After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway, with 32 of these sentenced to death. No compensation or reparations have been provided to Southeast Asian victims."
Dorrigo Evans is the main person, but Flanagan lets us see this horrific experience through the eyes of many of his comrades and contemporaries, such as some cruel, bullying fellow soldiers, some of the Japanese officers and soldiers that were commanding and torturing the Australian prisoners, as well as his unfulfilled love interest Amy, and even his long-suffering wife, Ella. The book is a masterful kaleidoscope of all of their perspectives, touching the horrendous war experiences from inside the minds of all of these people, which gives a fascinating glimpse into torturer and tortured, the cheating unhappy husband, the uncomprehending steadfast wife, and the also unhappily married lover Amy… I feel ill-equipped to repeat any of the plot and the details because the book is just so well written, it would be a shame not to experience it for oneself.
We were all touched by the many stories and the amazing style in which they are written. We talked about the incredibly different imperial attitude the Japanese had, completely ignoring an individual human’s worth in the service to the almost God-like emperor; we talked about the dangers of this mind-set and the incredible horrors it produced; we talked about the closeness the Australian soldiers felt with each other and that for most of them, nothing in their later civilian life could compare to this connection forged in the midst of all the loss and horror; we pondered how much the author, as a son of a survivor of these camps, must have hated imagining himself in the mind-set of the Japanese officers, to make them human…
We discussed a lot of the individual scenes in the book, which are many, and they’re all amazing. Too many to mention! We mostly discussed what effect all the intense experiences of Dorrigo’s life had on his ability or rather disability to love. We debated whether the intense lust he had in his affair with Amy could be love, or could have developed into love, but mostly concluded that his internal status conflict in combination with the damage that the war did to him probably precluded him from building a true connection to her. Or maybe it was only ever lust and nothing deeper was ever able to connect them, leaving him incredibly lonely in his life without Amy, in his unhappy marriage, in his endless affairs.
We marvelled at the descriptive power of the entire book, but especially about the long, drawn out scene at the end where Dorrigo’s family is trapped in an enormous fire (the details of which I couldn’t find on Wiki, not sure which of the many Australian fires it was) and he drives around in an old car looking for them. The scene goes on for pages and pages and is endlessly fascinating in its pace and descriptive power.
Thius book made us feel the sadness, enormousness, loneliness and all the horrors that its characters went through and it was an enriching experience to read it.