Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giving beauty and form to the inexplicable (Books - The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) is a stunner of a novel.  The Man Booker committee seems to have thought so too, having awarded it this year's prize.  It concerns a man, a doctor, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, a father, a husband, an adulterer - all the same man - one Dorrigo Evans.  Although he is all of these things, Dorrigo Evans is irrevocably shaped by his time as a prisoner of war, suffering abuse and deprivation at the hands of his Japanese captors as he and his fellow prisoners were brutally driven to build the Thai-Burma Railway.  As an officer, he is expected to assume leadership of the prisoners. In this role and as a physician, he feels compelled to save as many men as he can from illness and violent punishment.  His humanity is tested as the circumstances offer only choices among cruelties, warping any possibility of compassion.

He could not help Darky Gardiner.  The railway demanded it.  Nakamura understood that.  Dorrigo Evans had to accept it.  He too had a part in the railway.  Nakamura had a part.  Darky Gardiner had a part, and his part was to be brutally beaten, and all of them - each one in hes own way - had to answer to the terrible drumming.

The jerking movement of Darky Gardner's body and arms and legs as he tried to protect himself -  all these were for the guards now just natural obstacles, like rain or bamboo or rock, to be ignored or cut or broken.  Only when he ceased to struggle did they stop standing him up, and his cries gave way to a long, slow wheezing, like a torn fire bellows, and their grim work slowed to a more moderate tempo, taking on the nature of manual labour.

Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched.  Here were three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew, and yet they did nothing.  And they would continue to watch and they would continue to do nothing.  Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who had arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening.  He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.
The cruelty experienced by these men as depicted by Flanagan will test the most steely and realist of readers, however it is countered by prose of unadorned simplicity, even poetry, that serves the humanity of the work.  More even than a story about the savagery faced by the prisoners who worked and died in the camps and the captors who inflicted it, this is a story about how entire lives in all their paradox, were given shape and meaning by a single event.  How, whatever else they were - doting fathers, diligent employees, or lovers of poetry - they were reduced to one role or another within this drama of brutality.  This is emphasized most starkly by huge leaps Flanagan's omniscient third-person narrator makes from his characters' wartime experiences to their later professional and domestic lives, and sometimes, even to the very moment of their deaths.
There came good years, grandchildren, then the slow decline, and the war came to him more and more and the other ninety years of this life slowly dissolved.  In the end he thought and spoke of little else - because, he came to think, little else had ever happened.  For a time he could play the 'Last Post' as he had played it during the war, with a feeling that had nothing to do with him, as a duty, as his work as a soldier.  Then for years, then decades, he never played it at all until at the age of ninety-two, as he lay dying in hospital after his third stroke, he put the bugle to his lips with his good arm and once more saw the smoke and smelt the flesh burning, and suddenly he knew it was the only thing had had ever happened to him.
He knew they didn't understand.  But could they not see?  How could they not know?  It should have been so obvious what had to be understood.  You could never know when everything might change - a mood, a decision, a blanket.

A life.

They knew none of it.  They only knew that, whatever they did, he would never hurt them.  At the very worst, he would throw them over his knew, bring his hand up and then hold it there, hovering, over their bottom  Sometimes they would feel him shaking through his knees and thighs.  They would steal a look upwards and see his hand trembling, his eyes watery.  How could they know that their father was desperately trying to protect them from the unexpected smash of a rifle butt into their soft child's cheeks, to warn them of what horrors this hard world had ready for the unwary, the unwise and the unprepared...
Dorrigo Evans struggles at the book's opening to write the forward to a book of drawings of the POW camp by a fellow prisoner - one that will capture the depth of the suffering and the waste of a life never lived.
But of that day's most important detail he had written nothing.  He looked at his foreword, written, as ever, in his customary green link, with the simple, if guilty, hope that in the abyss that lay between his dream and his failure there might be something worth reading in which the truth could be felt. 
Perhaps this abyss finds its best expression in the arts because the artist faces its analogue in the gulf between the glimpse they get of pure experience and their work to approximate in their medium.  I can only imagine that this struggle mirrored Flanagan's own to capture the lives of these men.  But what a master of the written form we have in Flanagan's invigorating, precise prose.  A spring night is rendered
....cold as charity, snow coming down hard on the mountain, the harbour a lather, sleet slapping and scratching at windows and tin roofs like a wild drunk who's been locked out.
That's a poem.  If you speak it as you read, you can feel the night on your tongue.

Flanagan not only attempts to put flesh on the bones of experience of his countrymen, but also on that of their captors.  Imagining the experiences and actions of sympathetic national heroes is far easier than crawling inside the skin of their murderers. It turns this novel from a simple commemoration into an humanitarian project of imagination.  Here one of the former prison guards walks to the gallows.
Feeling nauseous and slightly dizzy, he walked the short distance out of P Hall and across to the gallows with a soldier supporting him on either side.  Everything was happening very quickly now.  He saw two sandbags learning up against a wall as they entered the courtyard.  There were perhaps a dozen men, perhaps more, six on the scaffold, most below.  They walked him up a ramp covered in straw matting to the top of the scaffold.  He was struck by how the rope was far thicker than he had expected. It reminded him of a ship's hawser.  He sensed a joyous brutality about the large, powerful knot.  I understand, he wished to say to the rope.  You long for me.  His thinking was calm, even vaguely pleasant, but his face was twitching.  So many people and no one was talking and his face would not stop twitching.   To his side, perhaps five metres away, a second trapdoor lay open, spend, and rising out of it a taut rope.  He realised at its end, out of sight, dangled Kenji Mogame.
Not only does Flanagan imagine the banal moment-to-moment detail of the condemned man's walk to death, he gives voice to the rope which will hang him.  This is a great artist at work - to imagine in the first-person the experience of their subject and then to give it a form that is inevitable and that no one else could give it.

Flanagan accomplishes the first of these two tasks with the quality of his prose but he finds two related symbols that become the container of his words.  Early in the novel, Dorrigo Evans looks down at the pegs that hold the tracks of the Thai-Burmese railroad in place and notes:
...there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable.  Simple facts explained the pegs. But they conveyed nothing.  What is a line, he wondered, the Line?  A line was something that proceeded from one point to another - from reality to unreality, from life to hell - 'breadthless length', as he recalled Euclid describing it in school boy geometry.  A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the processing from life to death.  A journey to hell.
Flanagan packs a into this paragraph the concept of the geometric form of a line, the "Line," the name given to the railroad upon which the prisoners toiled, and the idea of time proceeding sequentially and seeming to convey no meaning because each life journeys only to death.  This he contrasts a page later with something Evans reads:
On his death bed, the eighteenth-century haiku poet Shisui had finally responded to requests fro a death poem by grabbing his brush, painting his poem, and dying.  On the paper Shisui's shocked followers saw he had painted a circle....Shisui's poem rolled through Dorrigo Evans' subconscious, a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle - antithesis of the line.
The two forms can both symbolize a life, and although his novel is a line of words proceeding sequentially through time, Flanagan contains the endlessness of these lives in the way his narrative leaps forward and doubles back, creating a circle that lets the reader experience their coherence even if they were beyond meaning.

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