There are some books you finish but that you cannot be sure they are finished with you.
Flanagan’s novel, the 2014 winner of the Man Booker, is the story of (Alwyn) Dorrigo Evans. A Tasmanian, who went to war as a young man, became a POW caught up the almost inhuman horrors of the Japanese drive to build the Burma railway, before emerging into a life as a celebrated surgeon, as well as being an existentially hollowed-out womaniser.
Structurally it is a novel in three parts: the pre-war; the war; and the post-war. Of course they overlap and bleed into one another as memory does. Pre-war Evans is engaged to Ella but madly in love with Amy, the much younger wife of his uncle. Their affair is passionate and not nearly as well kept a secret as they believe.
The section on war, which is mainly around the privations, brutalities and deaths of the thousands of men on the railway, is difficult reading. The scenes of illness, the medical necessities with extremely limited equipment which forces improvisation, are stomach churning. It would be hard to think of a more ‘main stream’ novel containing such explicit – and yet of course, excellently written – violence; both physical and psychological.
A great many men don’t make it out alive. The great question behind the text is, whether those who did survive – came home, that is – ‘survived’ in any meaningful sense. Both the former prisoners of war and their captors and torturers go through the post-war world as shells or ciphers in which nothing seems to make sense for them and in which they can find no place for themselves. Men who drank and drank and “couldn’t get drunk no matter how much they drank.” There is little respite, no salvation nor epiphany.
The title is borrowed from the Edo period poet, Basho’s epic (also translated as The Narrow Road to the Interior): the tale of his 150-day walking tour around the Northern Provinces of Honshu.
Each section of the novel begins with a haiku (or hokku), my second favourite of which is by Basho:
a bee / staggers out / of the peony
My favourite is the perfect poem, “Shisui’s death poem”; the drawing of a circle.
Flanagan’s novel is vivid, majestic, filthy, (and vividly filthy) passionate and brutal.
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.