It has just been announced that Australia writer Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North. The chairman of the judging panel, Professor A.C. Grayling called Flanagan’s novel a ‘masterpiece’: high praise indeed.
While the story has universal appeal, it is also deeply Australian, asking – and answering – the profoundest of questions: what does it mean to love one another?
The novel takes us to events of World War II when prisoners of the Japanese were coerced to build a railway through the Thai jungle to Burma. Though explicitly fiction, it describes the events fully and exploits what novels do best: it humanises the characters. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.
Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. This is not love.
Dorrie Evans’ one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire. This is love of a sort, but not a compelling love.
However on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you, Sir.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else. This caring about mates, however flawed, approaches love.
At the heart of the novel is Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between the ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares in the novel to call it love.
Richard Flanagan has stated in interviews that he wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be human, with the central layer being the layer of love, brutal, surprising, passionate and real.