Some Work of Noble Note: Objects of Compassion in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

DSCN1499 - Version 5Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. [Sydney: Vintage] Toronto: Random Canada, 2013.

 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.

Narrow Road 07082015Flanagan 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 DSCN1499 - Version 5far 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.Narrow Road 07082015

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 worksubject and object were entirely annihilated” (The Awakening of Zen. London: Shambhala, 1980. 72-73) Print. Qtd. Among others in and Certainly, when I read these words, I understood exactly why Flanagan constructs his narrative as he does.

ThiNarrow Road 07082015s is oDSCN1499 - Version 5ne of those novels that one finishes reading but with which one is never finished.





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One Response to Some Work of Noble Note: Objects of Compassion in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

  1. Al Valleau says:

    I would agree with your comments on the nature of Flanagan’s novel and the compassion he elicits for the characters in his novel, although there are grey areas in the characters too which guard you from becoming too empathetic. The irony of the public lionized hero, Dorrigo, is not only juxtaposed by his serial adulteries, but, more importantly, by his doubts about others’ perceptions of him and what he has done both as a doctor and an individual. While it could be argued that he finally is able to show compassion for his family in rescuing them from a forest fire in rural Tasmania and for his brother when his brother is ill in hospital, that does not negate the underlying currents that roll through his life, the love affair he never really gets over with Amy, his “Amy, amante, amour,” as he puts it, and the lies that are told to Amy by her husband and by Ella to Dorrigo. Often the nature of reality is called into question in small, complex beautiful passages in the novel like the one that occurs just after he receives the letter from Ella that contains the lie about Amy’s death:
    “For a long time he watched the flame refusing to die. The smoke tapered into tiny smuts that played up and down in the pulsing areolae of candlelight. He looked at the light, at the smuts. As though there were two worlds. This world and a hidden world that was a real world of flying particles spinning, shimmering, randomly bouncing off each other, and new worlds coming into being in consequence. One man’s feeling is not always equal to all that life is. Sometimes it’s not equal to anything much at all. He stared into the flame. (466)
    This nature of the unexplored and unknowable that permeates the novel, the characters, their understandings of who they are to each other and to themselves makes the puzzle that much more complex, and at times lovely too as Jack Rainbow’s widow’s comments after she asks Dorrigo if he believes in love:
    It’s too small a word, don’t you think, Mr. Evans? I have a friend in Fern Tree who teaches piano. Very musical, she is. I’m tone-deaf myself. But one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn’t believe it, Mr Evans. These two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded . . . right. Am I being ridiculous? Do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans? The 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. (385-6)
    And so the shifting visions, of light and dark, of what is and what should have/could have been and of the nature of the tiny moments when we are able to “fly into the sun” (10) are also woven into the text of the novel, an appropriate theme for a novel centred on a generation of Australians, Koreans and Japanese whose lives were interrupted and distorted by cataclysmic events over which they had little control and which had a lasting effect on the rest of their existences.

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