If I had to sum up a description of last year’s Booker prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North in one word, I think I’d describe it as an empathic novel. Spanning the life of Dorigo Evans, an Australian doctor, Flanagan’s novel is centred in the experience of Australian POWs building the Thailand-Burma railway during the Second World War. Evans is one of the survivors (?) of that experience.
Flanagan takes his title from the Japanese poet Basho’s travel journal written partly in prose and partly in haiku. This journey is, (dare I say of course?) not only a physical journey but an interior voyage into the self and beyond to possible enlightenment.
The novel is structured around the character and life of Dorigo Evans, who from humble origins in Tasmania is by his old age, though something of a serial adulterer, a respected member of the medical profession and a lover of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” However, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is far more than simply a fictional biography of one man; it is a meditation on the nature and power of love, on friendship, loyalty, honour, and on the nature of moral integrity and the nature of evil.
The novel examines great anguish and amazing fortitude. Some of Flanagan’s descriptions of conditions for the POWs are extremely disturbing in their veracity. However, what I take most from the novel is not the horror but the compassion Flanagan extends to all his characters.
Some readers may find Flanagan’s broken and shifting chronologies and points of view troubling. I did not. They made sense. As I said before, this book is not simply a fictional biography. Flanagan’s choices about focalization and chronology build our understanding of just how the past intersects with the present, how nothing is actually clear cut. Even the relationship between torturer and tortured is often far more complicated than we may have thought.
The novel also examines the nature of secrecy, of what is told and not told, and therefore what is known and unknown even between friends. It examines the power of absence and of silence, the power of lies and the nature of truth. A very superficial internet investigation of what others have thought of the novel reveals that I am not alone in thinking that at the heart of Flanagan’s novel lie much the same concerns as provide the theoretical foundations for Basho’s poetry as stated in 1980 by Dr. Suzuki the great Zen scholar, who felt that in Basho’s work “subject and object were entirely annihilated” (The Awakening of Zen. London: Shambhala, 1980. 72-73) Print. Qtd. Among others in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oku_no_Hosomichi and http://themathesontrust.org/library/hosomichi) Certainly, when I read these words, I understood exactly why Flanagan constructs his narrative as he does.