“A constant sacrament of praise”: The Narrow Road to the Deep North By Richard Flanagan


 

How do you know you’ve got a literary novel, and a good one, on your hands? It begins posing a question you cannot, yet, or perhaps ever, answer.

Richard Flanagan begins with such a question: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” I cannot answer the question, but in terms of THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, I understand it is important, as important as the darkness in which Darky Gardiner dies, as the preternatural darkness falling with the monsoons, as the midnight inside the Goanna’s hangman-hood, as the garb and aspect of Dorrigo’s Charon.

Dark—like Darky’s final moments—predominates as it should in death camps, but when Dorrigo Evans meets Amy Mulvaney in a bookstore, amid the sun shafts illuminating dust motes that promise of two worlds, light enters. To say the light is intense is to shade it: that light—like the love—varies but lasts a lifetime. Do we learn why? I do not. Are we convinced of a beginning? With confidence.

A conundrum, too, is posed: It is said early on of Jackie Maguire’s tears, “One man’s feeling is not always equal to all life is. Sometimes it’s not equal to anything much at all.” The story proves the second part. The first, remains a mystery to me. The phrase “not always” confuses, but let’s argue that ‘if one man’s feeling is not always equal to all life is,’ that, ergo, sometimes it is. Certainly, measured in its magnitude, the love of Dorrigo and Amy might just be equal to all life is. I’ll not attempt explanation; leave it that as the syllogism appears at intervals, Flanagan invites each reader to turn the statement over for himself. But think on it lightly for it will otherwise make you cry.

About tears Flanagan is clear at the outset. Dorrigo Evans does not cry. But his brother Tom and a neighbor, Jackie Maguire, do in the first few pages: Tom stricken by his return from war, Jackie by the loss of love, and thus love and war, the two great themes of the story, begin to twine. The feeling of Hemmingway’s early work, the ghosts of Frederick and Katherine, and of Jake and Lady Brett Ashley immediately haunt these pages. Here the war proves more real (and unreal like the worlds promised in dust motes), the love is more fraught with longing for some and civility for others, and the prose reveals a fuller, richer timbre, rife with echoes of voices heard at a distance.

Those voices question “What is love?” and Dorrigo Evans and all characters as well, such as Jackie Rainbow’s widow, entertain this question. The possible answers for Dorrigo Evans lie in the women of his many affairs (not to be confused, really, with love), in Ella his comfortably suitable wife, and in the woman of the red camellia, Amy Mulvany, his torrid and secret love and his uncle Keith’s wife, too. Were the war not to intervene, Evans would have the opportunity to find out which represented love, which answered the question posed. Up to that time he knows Ella will be safe and dull, Amy wild and dangerous, and the others used and discarded comforts.

Dorrigo and Amy take chances that could reveal their affair to Ella, his tacit betrothed at that point, and to Uncle Keith, Amy’s husband. They seem to yearn for, perhaps dare discovery in their recklessness, but when their love is revealed, suddenly the war intervenes. Their love cannot be tested; they and the readers must wait out the horrid war.

Flanagan portrays World War II as less mythic than Hemmingway’s conflicts—in For Whom the Bell Tolls, certainly, and even the senseless mess of war in A Farewell to Arms—for most of what we see is the Japanese POW camp in a Burmese monsoon. That which is glorious is survival from day to strangling day, nothing more. Nothing is redeeming, other than staying alive and the bond sustained through that struggle. Through slavery, drudgery, starvation, brutality, and death, death, and more death, the camp marks each man, survivor and victim alike, whether Japanese or Australian. There is no glory, only suffering. The war story is hard to watch unfold, though it is impossible to turn away.

Neither love nor war, though, runs entirely through the book. Deception does: self-deception abounds, Nakamura’s love for the Emperor and his late-life “goodness;” the lover’s naiveté; the Goanna’s hope for fair treatment; deception of lies (both Ella and Keith were guilty of the same); deception of subordinates as Dorrigo Evans and Major Nakamura must fool their men into believing in them (Dorrigo being the more successful); Koto and the Emperor himself who deceive, during and after the war, vast numbers of military and civilian Japanese—deception on a national scale. (The Japanese knew they could not win the war). Deception in love and in war fuels the stories of each character, perhaps without it we could not live. Like life itself it “just is.”

Were it not for the poetry, the Tennyson and Basho, the novel would yet be literary. But the love of and belief in poetry is a glue binding the otherwise disparate characters to one another and to the story. The power of poetry, a hackneyed phrase, here grows palpable: it moves a nation. The poetry of Dorrigo Evans’ mantra,“Charge the windmill,” even in idiotic misquotation “Charge the windowsill,” opens to ironic meanings. “Love is two bodies with one soul,” Dorrigo Evans reads in an unidentified and unfinishable ‘romance.’ Another question? A deception? A poem? His answer could have been the conjugation of his love, “Amie, amante, amour,” spanning languages and time, instead the reply “Left only Death’s ironic scrapings” (Peter Quince at the Clavier, Wallace Stevens).

It is in the final ironies that I learned to hate the book—it had grown too haunting a description of our lives. The twists are wonderfully crafted, and we can understand why they were left to the very late part of the story out of novelistic necessity, but I marvel that Flanagan could possibly sustain the cadence; perhaps that persistence in the face of utter loss makes the good novelists the great ones: The war is over. Everyone is dead. Life just is. Life just is (undeniably sad). And then there is light.

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