From West Bengal to Australia. Reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan means that I have now finished the pile of Man Booker titles immediately available, two more should come to me next week and then we wait for the rest.
There is both beauty and horror in the title of this book. For it is the title of one of the most beautiful works of Japanese Literature, a haibun which sums up the greatness of the Japanese spirit and also the Japanese nickname for the deadly Burma Railway. The book is sprinkled with haiku by famous Japanese writers: Issa, Buson, Hyakka, Basho, and spread-eagled with descriptions of the Australians who suffered and died, and sort of survived that hideous engineering cruelty built by an assortment of coolies made up of Koreans, Thais and other Asia sub-races [not my opinion] and Prisoners of War from the Allied forces.
This book concentrates entirely on the characters in one platoon of Australians, led by an military officer and a medical officer, Dorrigo Evans. Dorrigo, the principal character in this novel, is a strange mixture of a disreputable philanderer, poetry lover, war hero and moderately successful surgeon. In the horrors of wartime, the heat and wet of the jungle and the dreadful brutality of the Japanese, he struggles with the lives of his men, keeping them alive only to see them deemed fit for work: gruelling, life-sapping work for which starved and sick men are not fit. Powerless to help, he can only try to make a difference. In peace-time, he is unfaithful to his wife, cold with his children, heart-sick and lonely, yearning for something he cannot name or find.
The novel swings the reader from before the war, during the war and after the war; it is not chronological, we go back and forth following the lives not only of the Australians, but also the Japanese soldiers and one Korean all of whose lives crashed together during the war. It is part war novel, part love story, it is full of beauty and ugliness; selfishness and generosity, kindness and cruelty. It is beautifully written.