Japan Visitor: What's happening in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Shimane Japan

Home    Japan Travel Guide     Tokyo Guide     Contact     Auction Service     Japan Shop

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel by Richard Flanagan.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel
Richard Flanagan
464 pages
ISBN 978-0385352857

Richard Flanagan's 2014 Booker Prize-winning work about the Burmese railroad fiasco pulls off its brazen trick of appropriating - occupying, if you will - the title of the Japanese haiku master Basho's great travelogue Oku no hosomichi. But it fails to learn perhaps the greatest lesson of the medium: less is more. Its 464 pages, while often filled with arresting images, are about a hundred too many for its purpose; or maybe the problem is that the novel, much like its hapless protagonist, is unsure of its purpose, and thus marches on doggedly in a maze of blind alleys long after it should have packed it in.

While the novel treads the well-blazed path of the allied prisoner-of-war experience at the hands of pitiless Japanese soldiers (in the footsteps of such classics as The Seed and the Sower and The Bridge Over the River Kwai), this time it focuses on Australians' and Japanese' perspectives.

Ironically it is not the hellish details of deprivation and depravity that risk turning off the reader, but rather the hackneyed story of forbidden love that is overly intrusive at a time when the novel should be consolidating its narrative direction.

This second-rate melodrama of a frustrated young wife betraying her lumbering older husband for his surgeon nephew pales against the POWs' hard-earned solidarity in the face of suffering, and produces howlers such as this candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton prize:

"Afterwards, he remembered only their bodies, rising and falling with the crash of waves, brushed by the sea breezes that ruffled the sand dune tops and raked the ash that ate his abandoned cigarette."

Excepting such surfeits of relative clauses and personification, Flanagan is in fact at his best in his observations of the indifferent material world that envelopes human suffering, and of the suffering itself, be it at the hands of their own banality and thwarted sense of self (the Australians), or of a brutal samurai code evoked in war (the Japanese). Attendant is a portrayal of the frightening power of language, common to British and Japanese poetry, and Mein Kampf, to channel the human spirit into equally boundless nobility or sadism.

Thus it is that Basho's haiku ennobling the human aesthetic instinct - "Even in Kyoto / when I hear the cuckoo / I long for Kyoto" - is twisted by a Japanese colonel whose assured racial superiority is licence for an orgy of beheading of the dehumanised Chinese 'enemy': "Even in Manchukuo / when I see a neck / I long for Manchukuo."

Flanagan risks ridicule in employing the quintessential Japanese artform against itself, but such damning juxtapositions work, much as the Nazis condemned themselves by listening to Beethoven while overseeing the Holocaust. The point is that aesthetic sensibility is no substitute for human decency. The haunted army surgeon Dorrigan Evans realises (or as Flanagan intones ad nauseam, "understands") that about himself, even as he seeks solace, if not guidance, in the beauty of others' words throughout his bemused, empty life.

Though it is not a new insight, Flanagan is right to reiterate - writing as he is amid a rejuvenated era of revisionist right-wing politics, not only in Japan - that the starving man who gives half his meagre rice slop to a fellow sufferer is more eloquent in his gesture of universal human solidarity than a thousand poems lauding the unique spirit of a particular race. But sadly Flanagan felt the need to embroider what was essentially his laconic father's true-life experience as a POW with an amorous counterpoint, rendering the eloquent logorrheic and sending the narrative off-track into the jungle mud.

Buy The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A Novel
from Amazon
USA | UK | Japan

Richard Donovan

© JapanVisitor.com

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...