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.