Remembering the horrors of 'The Line'
The exquisite haiku of the Japanese Edo-period poet Basho might seem an unusual touchstone in a novel about savagery and survival on the Burma death railway, which was constructed by prisoners-of-war and Asian slave labour in 1943.
Yet Basho's crystalline brevity gives Richard Flanagan's novel not only its title, but also its grace and unfathomability.
Flanagan, a Tasmanian, wrote the novel in tribute to his late father, who survived the horrors of "The Line". Thousands more did not.
Beaten and starving, riddled with cholera, ulcers and beriberi, Allied POWs and local workers alike perished in the dense jungle between Thailand and Burma (the brutality involved in building the Burma rail line is well captured in the iconic 1957 David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness.
In Flanagan's unflinching telling, an Australian military surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, is the senior officer whose division is enduring this hell on Earth.
He will later be fêted for his heroism in saving lives through medical know-how and, as a colonel, seeking fair treatment from the Japanese officer in charge, Major Nakamura, who is himself addicted to methamphetamine to ease recurring malaria.
In the years following, Nakamura, through careful self-preservation and cunning instinct, avoids denunciation as a war criminal.
In a sense, Evans comes to realise, the Japanese commander was as helpless in the face of the emperor's orders as any other individual.
Evans's post-war existence seems to him a mere formality. He is haunted by the intense affair he conducted with Amy, his uncle's second wife, while army training in Adelaide, and the later, horrendous killing of Darky Gardiner, the brightest soldier of his platoon.
He slips numbly into marriage with Ella, who has dutifully waited out the war for him. Shortly after their honeymoon, he begins the first of many infidelities.
Flanagan's writing courses like a river, sometimes black with mud, sludge and corpses, sometimes bright with moonlight.
Danger is omnipresent, even after combat recedes; nature careless and monumental in its rains, its bushfires.
The hallucinations caused by privation, be it physical hunger or erotic yearning, are unapologetically evoked.
The stories of these casualties of fate catch at the soul.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Chatto & Windus, pbk, 464 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie
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