Richard Flanagan’s book won the Booker Prize in 2014, but it took me some time before reading it; though my friend kept telling me how great it is, the blurb didn’t attract me at all. I then chanced upon it in Daunts and the lady on the cover was literally staring at me. Thus I bought it.
Many people are unaware of the Railway of Death. While the media focused on the battlefields in England, France and the other big countries, little was ever said about what happened to those prisoners of war – English and Australian primarily – who were sent to a jungle in Siam (now Thailand) under Japanese custody in order to build a historically long railway. Flanagan’s book is unforgettable because of the way this forgotten part of WW2 is narrated. The upshot is we see history in a different perspective, and therein lies the beauty of this book. It could have been an account of the horrors in the jungle – which it partly is – but it is more than that: we see the events from the eyes of different characters and we realize it is almost impossible to reach a definite conclusion about things: for example, are the Americans the bad guys for the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? In some ways, in regards to how the account of the events is delivered, this book reminds me quite a bit of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: it is virtually impossible to hold a party fully responsible for the atrocities – everybody’s acts were dictated by war.
The story spans over the main character’s life, although some chapters are exclusive to certain ‘secondary’ characters. My favorite bits were about the Japanese soldiers and generals. Their code of honor, Bushido (literally meaning The Way of the Warrior), is at the heart of all these chapters. They lived in a different part of the world under the reign of a dictator-like Emperor and had their own sets of morals and ideals. They were extremely mechanical and being liberal in their approach was never an option; this perhaps explains why until now Japanese people are extremely disciplined and faithful to traditions. It was very interesting to see how they differ from people from the rest of the world.
The novel is not solely about the war though. It was without surprise that I learnt that Flanagan sometimes assumes the roles of scriptwriter and director, because the book has the completeness of an American movie of old (in Hollywood’s heyday). Perhaps it was the scriptwriter in him who decided to let a romance be the backdrop to the nightmare that was Siam’s nightmarish jungle. It was perhaps again that same scriptwriter who thought it right to end every episode he began in the war. Some chapters towards the end were quite unnecessary and didn’t feel really coherent with the horrors we witnessed at the core of the book. Truth be told, this took me aback a bit, because it felt too much like a movie sometimes and less like a Booker-winning book. It was not something bad though, just unusual.
The Guardian, like many critics, lavishes praise on the book and says it definitely should be read. However it somehow makes a comment that follows along the same lines of the above paragraph: the book sometimes collapses into ”pop philosophy”. That being said, you only see this if you’re being nit-picky. For The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unforgettable work that gave a me a different perspective on the WW2 and the Japanese people. I highly doubt there’s a better book on the Railway of Death and it definitely is one of the best historical fiction novels written in the last century. For me, it is a masterpiece because of the way it alternates between different perspectives. I believe this is how war novels should have been written.
So far, if it wasn’t for Schindler’s Ark, it would have been my best read of the year.