Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: July 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Suffering, and Love

Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2014, describes the incomprehensible horror of a prisoner of war camp along the infamous Burma “death railroads” in World War II, and the stunning beauty of human compassion, sacrifice, and love. He offers a deeply complex vision of humanity. The novel is stout stuff, not for the feint of heart, but if you can weather the unblinking treatment of human suffering, the reward comes in Flanagan’s profound compassion and deep understanding of the human condition–and in his beautiful prose.

Flanagan’s title comes from Matsuo Basho’s late 17th-century travel journal with the same title, describing a 1500 mile journey by foot into the far north of Japan. Basho was a master of the haiku form, through which he communicated the beauty and transience of life and the frailty of all living things. When I was teaching at the university, my World Lit students read Basho’s journal under the alternately translated title The Narrow Road of the Interior. Flanagan’s novel has strong thematic echoes of Basho’s work. Here’s a very Basho-like statement from deep in the novel: “Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo. . . . People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only. . . . Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.”

I fell in love with the protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor, when as he lay beside a beautiful woman in the night, Flannagan’s narrator says: “A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. . . . He believed books had an aura that protected him, that without one beside him he would die. He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.”

One of the magical things about the novel is that it turns a harrowing story about suffering and death in a prisoner of war camp into a book about love–between men and women and between men caught in an unimaginable horror. Late in the novel, when after the war Dorrigo Evans is meeting with the wife of one of his men who was killed in the camp, she says to him: “Do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans? The [musical] note that comes back to you? That finds you even when you don’t want to be found? That one day you find someone, and everything they are comes back to you in a strange way that hums? That fits. That’s beautiful.”

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North made me hum, it made me ache, it made me sigh. As a writer, it made me jealous and happy at the same time. If your nerves are steady and your stomach strong, you have to read this novel. It will get hold of you and make you hum.



Arturo Perez-Reverte and Fear as Sin

I just finished reading my second Arturo Perez-Reverte novel, The Flanders Panel. Perez-Reverte’s novels use many of the standard elements of the mystery genre, but are written in a rich style, beautiful even in translation, and explore the deep humanity of his complex characters. I’ve started a third Perez-Reverte novel, The Fencing Master, and one of the things I like most about these three novels is that they are all set in a specialized subculture–rare book collectors, art collectors, professional chess, fencing.

The protagonist of The Flanders Panel, a young woman who does restoration work on classic pieces of art for some of the biggest collectors and art houses in the world, uncovers a long hidden secret about a major Renaissance painting on which she is working. Her world begins to fall apart, and her life is threatened. Her response, as given by Perez-Reverte’s narrator, intrigues me:

“Was she really afraid? In other circumstances, the question would have been a good topic for academic discussion, in the pleasant company of friends, in a warm, comfortable room, in front of a fire, with a bottle of wine. Fear as the unexpected factor, fear as the sudden, shattering discovery of a reality which, though only revealed at that precise moment, has always been there. Fear as the crushing end to ignorance or as the disruption of a state of grace. Fear as sin.”

This paragraph, beautifully written, posits the powerful tension between two ways we experience reality–emotion and intellect. In this case,  fear, the primitive fear of death, of violence, of pain, is the physical experience. This fear in the protagonist’s gut becomes anger, the desire for revenge, the fight for self preservation. But that same fear in her mind becomes metaphor–the “crushing end to ignorance,” the “disruption of a state of grace,” or, most surprising, “sin.”

We all respond to fear on the emotional level with “fight or flight.” We respond to fear on the intellectual level with metaphor–it becomes a bottomless chasm, a stampede of wild horses, or Hell. I wonder whether, as we evolved from pre-conscious beings to beings that are self-aware, our experience of fear began to operate on two levels. The paintings on the cave walls at Lascaux in southern France, over seventeen thousand years old, were metaphors for the visceral experience of hunting large and dangerous animals. Perhaps we make metaphors of our deepest fears so that we can live with them.

What does it mean for fear to be the “disruption of a state of grace,” to be “sin”? Do we live in the illusion of security, and is the illusion of security the state of grace that is disrupted by the threat of violence or death? If so, then “state of grace” is itself a metaphor, a metaphor of an illusion. All of us who have lived beyond our teenage years have come to understand that in this life there is no security, that everyone, from the pauper to the prince, is subject to sudden and unexpected dangers, to violence of various forms, to death. And yet most of us, from day to day, live as if this were not true. An odd way of looking at “grace”–the self-imposed ignorance of the fragile, the delicate, splintery nature of life, that is beyond our control.

Hard not to hear echoes of the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve living in ignorance, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, The Fall as the sudden confrontation with nakedness and death.  John Milton opens Paradise Lost with this:  “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,/ With loss of Eden . . . . Sing Heav’nly Muse.” Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel becomes another version of that primordial story. A paradise lost. And Perez-Reverte? Sing, Heavenly Muse!

Independence on Independence Day?

I  ask myself how independent, as an individual, I really am on Independence Day. The overwhelming social and cultural pressure on the July 4th holiday is not to be independent or to think independently, but to conform. And that conformity tends to be packaged in a very small box and labeled “patriotic.”

Our word patriot comes from the Greek patriotes, through Latin and medieval French, and meant simply “fellow countryman.” Actually, the Greeks applied the word “patriotes” to barbarians. By the 17th century the word patriot had come to mean “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country,” but then lost favor again, being applied to troublemakers by the early 19th century. In the 20th century the word was revived with its current positive connotations, especially in American English.

So, historically the heart of the word patriot is “fellow countryman,” or the people with which you live in a broad community and with which you identify. Based on this fact, a box with the label patriotic should not be a small box, but a very big box, one that includes a commitment to the well-being of all those who live in our country. So a patriot would be one who works tirelessly for good education for all in the country, a decent living wage for all in the country, healthy food and wholesome living conditions for all in the country, programs that promote health, fitness, and emotional well being for all in the country, laws that insure dignity and justice for all and prevent the abuse of power for all in the country, programs that offer a safety net to protect those who struggle to make it on their own, including the elderly, the mentally ill, and those who are broken by circumstances beyond their control. On the other hand, a patriot would also be one who challenges those whose ideas conflict with the truths that the writers of the Declaration of Independence considered “self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A patriot would challenge those who promote the good of only the powerful and rich, or throw up obstacles to accessing the freedom and opportunities that are available, or exclude people from those opportunities based on race, religion, sexual identity, and other differences.

How have we come to believe that patriotism is first and foremost a matter of waving a flag, or spending trillions on the military, or bashing anyone who says otherwise, or blindly promoting the United States over all other countries in the world, regardless of the facts of any situation? We should never minimize the sacrifice of those who have died in conflict for their countrymen. Theirs is often called the “ultimate” sacrifice. Because I am a patriot, their fellow countryman, I am committed not to “my country right or wrong” but to holding our government accountable for the lives of my countrymen, because our government is no less likely than any other government to send them to their deaths for the wrong reasons, to be influenced by greed and the lust for power. By not keeping our government and ourselves accountable for every life in our country, we simply make the abuse of immense power easier.

So on this 4th of July I offer this blog post, and later I will be a patriot by eating with a few fellow countrymen/women and hopefully being thankful for, and re-commiting myself to, not just freedom but opportunity, dignity, and well-being–life and happiness–for all.

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