A short review of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, by Richard Flanagan.

This is a long book. At first glance it appears to be based on the life of Sir Weary Dunlop, and it is written in a formal style, even slightly academic. Its title is taken from a 17th century haibun, a Japanese literary form, which synthesises haiku and prose. The range of haibun is broad and frequently includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haibun The author has steadfastly included an example of each element, as if ticking off in a catalogue, As I said, this is a long book. It has a little of everything.

Each of its parts is interesting, in its own way. One part serves as a catalogue of the horrors of the building of the Thai Burma railroad, by mainly Australian Prisoners of War, after the fall of Singapore. Other parts are hit and miss, but the main message I take from the book is that it is earnestly ticking off the essential elements of a haibun.

It also leaps about in time, from the present, where the ‘hero’ is really an elderly, bored rake, and looking back, mournfully, to the beginning of his journey, when his eye was not so jaded. There is, however, no credible depth, no real sense of despair; it is like he wasted a pre-paid booking to an art show. The best, and also the most tedious, passages, document the inhumane treatment of the prisoners by their Japanese, and Korean guards. It is like a cross between a translated diary and an unedited history treatise.

While it pays due respect to the suffering of the prisoner/slaves, it appears to suffer from such a surfeit of words as to be exhausting. Not for Richard Flanagan the elegance of Henry James, who allowed his readers to provide their own versions of hell: no, Mr Flanagan provides episodes so overly-written that one begs for relief. In one memorable scene the guards beat a prisoner for page after page, after page, until it appears he is indestructible. (This sentence is not meant in any way to minimise the real suffering of those who were there, but to highlight the relentless, over writing.)

Preceding the hero’s memories of the war, and interposed, into and throughout, there is a ‘great love story’, wherein the hero chooses the woman he loves, based mainly on a preference for blue eyes over brown. This love story is at best perfunctory, and has very little in it in the way of passion, or credibility, apart from the fact that it is conducted with his uncle’s wife. Goodness, this could have been incestuous, but luckily it wasn’t.

Similarly his marriage and subsequent family life are characterised by descriptions of adultery and failure, and a type of nostalgic longing, with flashbacks to the war, earlier love, self-disgust at his continuing philandering, and at his growing celebrity.

He is in an existential hole until he is miraculously rescued by the great Hobart bush-fires of 1967. He not only drives through road blocks onto the burning mountain, where his wife and children are on foot, but he finds them, amidst the firestorm and the smoke and the panic. This rescue is not only highly unlikely in such tremendously hellish scenes, and over such treacherous ground as an out of control bush-fire, but it appears to do duty as another box-ticking exercise, and to fulfil the need in the narrative for some selfless heroics. Where is A.B. Facey when you need him?

This book is not really a novel, in the sense that it does not project as a conscious work of art. It is almost an oral history, unedited, verbose, well meaning, and stuffed with stocking filler moments. It reminds me of so many other novels, produced by so many earnest Australians, during the 1940s and 50s. It reads like a Year 12 essay, but a long one.

It seems to have garnered almost universal praise as an Australian classic, which is really undeserved. It is, to my mind, a worthy attempt at an example of a Japanese literary form, transplanted to Australia.

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