I long put off reading this novel only because I was miffed by its title. This will sound weird, stupid even. You see, for me anyway, I have long held Japanese poet Basho and his esteemed work, "Narrow Road to the Deep North," to be one of my most treasured reads. To see some Aussie steal the title for his own ends, for his own inexcusable lack of creativity, certainly in the naming of his books, seemed sinful. How wrong can you be? In my case monumentally so.
It is only with the reading of what now has been awarded the Booker Prize that I realised my foolish mistake. The novel is something quite beautiful, something very distinctive for it manages to tie together lives lived, loves lost with some of the worst horrors of war imaginable to humankind.
More than this though, much more than the authors ability to write such a remarkable story with such delicious wording, such fluid prose is the manner in which he reveals to us that although we humans, corruptible, cruel and callous at times, and Mister Flanagan writes it non-judgementally, without pointing fingers of blame at any one nation, is that we all are capable of such inhumane acts and yet, paradoxically, able of such love, such compassion.
Yes, this is a love story in the first part. It tells us in the opening pages of the childhood through to old age of the life of Dorrigo Evans, his life flashing past in so few pages that the author appears in a rush to reach the end even before he has begun its telling. We then find, as the pace slows somewhat, a young man, a man in his mid-twenties, whose passion for women, his search for love through lust, has found a female of similar years to himself, Ella, but who then finds and falls hopelessly in love with his Uncle's young wife, Amy.
The telling of the love is exquisitely told. It is both a tale of erotic qualities, stark truths revealed and yet still, unrequited. Maybe not unrequited as the couple spend long hours together making love but certainly ultimately unfulfilled. The war and the discovery of their affair, known to the Uncle, breaks them apart.
The war, the scenes witnessed of the POW camp is harrowing if not wholly unknown as that particular history has been well documented yet even in light of this Mister Flanagan manages to instil a sense of outrage as he shows us such contemptible cruelty.
It is after wars end when the various individuals, those left alive, both Australian and Japanese, arrive home that the real force, the true raison d'etre of this work becomes apparent. Richard Flanagan's skills here rely not only on the tale constructed but, and far more powerfully, the characters of whom he writes. Each one of the survivors, the Japanese whose apparent barbarism to the captured prisoners and the prisoners themselves are defined in such sharp detail, with such human traits, guilt's and foibles that you are forced to think beyond the first and easy conclusion of blame. You realise that the victims of this war were not just the men captured, abused and tortured but the men who captured then and beyond that humankind itself. You find your self neither loathing nor liking the characters merely understanding them and by so doing fully appreciating the evil inherent is that of one we all share and not, because it is easy and comforting to do so, the so called enemy.
Into this mix come questions; questions asking the virtue and meaning of life. Its vagaries and imponderables, its karmic qualities and its insoluble, insolvable mysteries. The story examines, in my mind at least reality itself. What is and what isn't real. What is Maya and what happens when we all, as one day we must, fade away. And then, threaded neatly in between prose, littered among the text, the calming Zen poetry.
It really is little wonder this book has been so highly praised as it is. It would have been better for my fragile ego if I could say otherwise, if I could have found some less well profiled book to praise but that would be dishonest. Once foolish bigotry has been put aside this is a very praiseworthy novel.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.