Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

[This journal, like the novel, is in five sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]

28 September 2015
First section
There are five sections of different lengths. This one is short, 57 pages in a novel of over 400, and it feels like an introduction. It’s a detailed one: we learn a lot about the main character, Dorrigo Evans – almost always referred to by his name in full – from his earliest childhood memory to what appears to be the present day in the 1990s. Now he lies in bed, an old man but still very active indeed, with one of several women in his life. He was born just before the First World War in Tasmania, served in the army in what even the Aussies have to call the Middle East, then was transferred to Singapore. This is where he had the life-changing experiences that have not only formed the man he is but, in the past twenty years, have brought him celebrity as a surviving hero. He hates the idea of this, and that’s partly what he writes about. Even in the small glimpses we’ve had of his time working on the Siam/Burma railway, we’ve seen how uneasy he is with the idea of being considered ‘the Big Fella’ his men look up to. And then he goes and does something so heroic he adds another layer to the men’s mythologising of him.

From the start, when he’s still a child, there are men crying. His older brother Tom, back from the First World War and bursting into tears at the station. A middle-aged man whose sorrow is a mystery until we – or the boy, now aged nine – piece together that his wife has left him. And then the narrative switches between the old man in the present day and earlier incarnations of himself. Through memories and brief conversations with the woman, often seeming suspicious and untrusting, a patchy narrative emerges. He makes an impression in a playground game in his first week at secondary school, but puts it down to luck. And he’s in the army, an army surgeon forced into a leadership role he’d never expected when the useless, posturing colonel dies of dysentery.

And we hear about the deaths. Not only those, but hints of the existential depths it is possible to live through and yet survive. I guess we’ll be getting those in more detail when our narrator decides it’s time for us to hear them. We know that Dorrigo is writing the introduction to a book of drawings he saved, made by one Guy Henderson, who died. We’ve even read a draft of this, before we’ve properly understood that that’s what it is, and it’s full of bitterness. The Japanese have memorials to their glorious dead – including, he lets us know, those executed for war crimes whilst supervising the very railway our man is writing about – whilst the Australians and other Allied soldiers and slave-workers are forgotten. Dorrigo wants ‘this book’ to be a kind of memorial, but it might be Flanagan writing about his own book. There’s an unwritten history here about survival against brutal odds, and I already get the feeling that Flanagan wants to redress the balance.

Near the end of this first section, Dorrigo can’t help thinking about one particular death. He describes the beating of his friend, ‘Darky’ Gardiner, that turned into something else. One Japanese soldier, who seemed to have stopped, was merely taking a break. ‘He brought his hand up to his forehead, flicked the sweat away, and sniffed. Just like that. Then he went back to work beating Darky.’ We know from earlier encounters that Dorrigo is quick to assert himself and stand up for what is right – we’ve seen his sarcasm with the preening colonel – but, we guess, by the time the beating takes place they have reached a state of mind in which protest doesn’t occur to any of them. They had started off as the well and the sick. Then they are the sick and very sick. Soon they are the very sick and the dying or dead. All of them are emaciated and suffering from more diseases than even Dorrigo can diagnose. As if it matters: the hospital tent is somewhere for men to die.

There’s more, but you get the picture. Despite Dorrigo’s self-doubt, Flanagan is presenting him as an Australian hero, quick to spot and deride the British propaganda the colonel likes to spout. And when the men present him with an unprecedented luxury, a steak taken from a cow killed in an ambush, he forces the kitchen hand to take it away and share it among them. This doesn’t reveal his heroism, he thinks, because he knows how close he was to eating the thing and showing ‘his true nature.’ But now they have ‘one more story of what an extraordinary man their leader was.’ And I’ve just remembered. To add to the womanising – a word used in the novel – there’s the literature. From early on, Dorrigo is fond of quoting from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, and later he’s into discussing the relative merits of the Greeks and Trojans. Don’t think for a minute that Australian means uncultured.

Is there some special pleading going on here, either by Dorrigo Evans or Richard Flanagan? Perhaps we’ll see. But so far, there’s something old-fashioned about Flanagan’s portrayal of the routine heroism of the ordinary man in extremis. It’s almost Kiplingesque – but then, our man is a great fan of Kipling.

29 September
Second section…
…which is twice the length of the first. Instead of snapshots of different moments in Dorrigo’s life, most of this section is given over to the long, hot summer of his affair with his uncle’s young wife before his first posting abroad. This is punctuated by three or four chapters in which we’re back in the jungle. But we’re not following Dorrigo this time, we’re inside the head of Major Nakamura, the local commander of the railway project. This sequence culminates (in Chapter 16, out of 27 in this section) in the extraordinary evening Nakamura spends with the colonel who has arrived to give him orders that are even more impossible than before. I’ll come back to them.

Neither Dorrigo nor Amy, the wife of his uncle Keith, meant the affair to happen. In the first chapter there’s a chance encounter that disquiets Dorrigo because of the unusual openness of this woman with eyes as blue as gas-jets. He doesn’t learn her name then, and expects never to see her again. And then he does, when he visits Keith’s seaside hotel not far from his camp. Flanagan spends a lot of time showing how determined both of them are not to let the mutual attraction lead to anything, but soon he painstakingly charts the gradual way each of them is overtaken by feelings they seem unable to control. It’s the old story. She had made a comfortable decision to marry a man more than twice her age. He has gone along with what seems to have turned into an engagement to Ella, an attractive but not passionate woman from the conservative middle classes. He knows he will only be accepted as long as it’s on their terms, and he’s told himself he’s ok with this. (What we know, but he doesn’t, is that he will marry Ella – her name is mentioned in the single chapter in this section that is set in the present-day 1990s – and that she is the one he will routinely cheat on for the rest of his life.)

Soon Dorrigo and Amy are both entirely possessed by a passion neither of them has ever experienced before, and Flanagan shows that this is entirely genuine on both sides by giving us both their points of view. For Dorrigo, there’s something about her smell, and even her imperfections, that makes her more dear to him. Although he does worry, if only momentarily, that sex is so all-involving for her that she seems to go to a place somehow away from him. For Amy, it’s – what? The look of him, particularly in a scene in which he washes himself as she admires him even down to his armpits, in which she imagines somehow losing herself. As the summer goes on, they both find it difficult to be concerned with anything else, so that every experience reminds them of the loved one. They begin to refer to themselves as us, and to the narrator they are them, in italics. And yes, they do speak of love. Each of them can imagine a future, however difficult, in which she has left Keith and he has broken off the engagement (if that’s what it is) with Ella.

It ends in a flurry of accelerated plotting. Just as Dorrigo is about to be posted abroad, Keith tells her that he knows all about the affair. He doesn’t, in fact, but when she doesn’t deny every last bit of it his fears are confirmed and she is appalled by how much she has hurt him. She really, really doesn’t know what to do. The affair has destroyed the marriage in which what she pretended to herself was love was really little more than comfort and security. With two days to go before his posting she telephones Dorrigo at the camp to tell him she can’t do it to Keith, that they have got to stop seeing each other. The appalling heat and noise of the office hut where he takes the call only add to the agony as he tries to gain some equilibrium. ‘I’ll be back…. And we’ll marry,’ he tells her – and realises she has rung off. He doesn’t know if she heard his last desperate promise. As he tries to imagine ways he can get away to meet her he is told they are leaving in five hours’ time. Oh dear.

There’s a chilling little coda, which starts with us witnessing the charade that Amy’s marriage has become by the time Dorrigo is a POW in the jungle. Nobody has heard from him in over a year… which doesn’t prove anything, of course, as post from prisoners held by the Japanese is almost non-existent. And then Keith drops a bombshell: Dorrigo, he has heard from somebody who knows somebody, is on a list of the dead. This isn’t just a mistake, it’s a lie: one ‘Major D Evans’ is dead, but Dorrigo is his middle name, and Keith is desperate to do something about the marriage. The effect on Amy is to make her go to the kitchen to do some pointless cleaning while, in order to try to feel something, she puts all her weight on the foot she cut earlier. (She’s been pressing it from the moment she first heard the news.) And the hotel blows up. Ah. That must be to do with the unaccountable smell of gas we heard about earlier on, and the ‘perpetual odour’ that had seemed worse than ever.

Those Major Nakamura chapters. Flanagan presents him as an ordinary man made unthinkingly cruel by the culture of ‘the Emperor’ and all it stands for. Any questioning of orders is unthinkable, and the harsh military mind-set of the Japanese regime offers ready-made justifications for any kind of atrocity. Prisoners can be treated like animals because real men would never allow themselves to be captured alive. Chinese prisoners or slave-workers, in a story told by the visiting colonel (more of him later), deserve to die in routine executions because they simply accept their fate without fighting back. And so on. But Nakamura is as plagued by anxieties as any man would be, placed in his impossible position. He knows the constant cranking-up of work targets to be impossible, that it would be more efficient, never mind humane, to let the men rest occasionally rather than working them to death… but what can he do? Orders arrive, seemingly direct from the Emperor, and the railway must be built months earlier than originally planned. The Emperor wills it, and the Japanese are resolute, so it will be done. The captives should feel honoured to carry out the Emperor’s will.

It’s the colonel who reminds him of these irrefutable truths when he arrives to tell him about the bringing forward of the date. He notices Nakamura taking the standard-issue amphetamines, and the major justifies this both to the colonel and himself. These are not opiates like the inferior races will take in order to escape. These pills make men sleep less, work harder, become better servants of the Emperor. Oh yes. The colonel, Kota, is staying overnight while prisoners pull his truck from the mud brought about by over 30 days’ rain – and this is only half-way through the monsoon season. So he and Nakamura are able to share a drink and an exchange of their favourite poetry, congratulating each other on the superiority of everything Japanese. And then…

…and then Flanagan takes it somewhere else. Kota, deep into the night, tells a story from his time as a new officer that begins a boast. It continues to be a boast, but becomes a terrible confession, a revelation of the darkness in his soul. He and all the other new officers had to prove their skill and resolution by beheading Chinese captives kneeling before their burial pit. When it comes to his turn, he describes it in detail. This chapter comes nearly two-thirds of the way through the story of Dorrigo and Amy’s affair, in all its sensual detail, and there’s something about Kota’s description that is a hideous mirror-image of it. ‘His neck was dirty, grey, like dirt you piss on. But once I had cut it open the colours were so vivid, so alive – the red of his blood, the white of his bone, the pink of his flesh, the yellow of that fat. Life! Those colours were life itself.’

And soon he is telling Nakamura how he has a sort of craving. He describes it as the need to show his own strength before men who otherwise become insolent, but it’s like those pills – ‘once you have it, even if it makes you feel lousy, you just want it again.’ He begins to gauge people’s necks whenever he sees them for the first time, and becomes confidential: ‘Can I ask you something…?’ And he describes how he would get his fix – he doesn’t call it that, of course – by choosing a prisoner ‘with a neck I fancied, and make him dig his grave…’ As he listens to what the narrator calls this terrible story, Nakamura accepts: ‘there was no other way for the Emperor’s wishes to be realised.’ It’s become one of the circles of hell.

(The chapter set in the 1990s shows how unsatisfactory things are with Dorrigo even in old age. He still feels a dutiful tug back to Ella – echoing Amy’s dutiful references to her own marriage at the point in the affair where this chapter appears – and he has to leave. Is Lynette, the married woman he’s been sleeping with, another unsatisfactory substitute for the his lost love – the one even we don’t learn is lost until the last chapter in this section? In his old age, Dorrigo knows more than we do, and the later revelation explains a lot.)

30 September
Third section…
…and it’s the longest yet despite being confined, until the final two chapters, to a single day on the Line. By way of his now familiar third person omniscient narrative, Flanagan is able to let us inside the conscious minds of at least five Aussies and at least two Japanese. It’s an unusual day – that visit from Kota shakes everything up, and Flanagan has some novelistic chance events coming together to cause a lot of trouble – but it’s a day like all the others as well. The rain falls, men obsess about the next mouthful of food, or they die. It culminates, as we knew it would, in the beating almost to death of ‘Darky’ Gardiner. And, as we know it would, the death is shown to be an inevitable, even necessary aspect of the Empire’s determination to succeed. Nakamura, who ordered it, ends up as traumatised as the prisoners.

Darky Gardiner is the one whose point of view the narrative alights on most frequently. The section begins with him having to get up in the middle of the night, and we get the first of the day’s many, many fastidiously described activities. What is it like to have to go out in the night to a dangerously unstable jungle latrine, with the rain pouring down, only to have more shit explode out of you on the duckboards outside so you slip on it and into the filthy mud? And then, how do you get back your space on the sleeping-board when the big man next to you has rolled on to it? How on earth can you keep up your morale?

Indefatigably keeping up his morale is what Darky does best. All he lets himself see is one silver lining after another – he could stand in for the character in The Life of Brian who sings Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. He has little morale-boosting strategies, like the way he never stops looking out for something to pilfer, so that he always has a tiny treat for himself stashed away. He has a rigid code of honour – I’m realising how Flanagan has stacked up his virtues to make his fate all the more unbearable – so that not only is stealing from your mates unthinkable, you share your treat with your exasperating work-partner who’s taking up all the room. This is Darky’s way of coping. By being endlessly cheerful and by dividing each day into sections that feel manageable, you can get through it. You will survive.

Other characters have other strategies, usually more inward than Darky’s. Tiny, his partner, relies on the strength in his huge body to achieve a higher workload each day. This greatly annoys the other men – the Japanese increase the quota for everyone based on his results, and Darky has tried his best to slow him down – but it works for him. And then it doesn’t. Some time ago, Tiny has succumbed to the wasting effects of a starvation diet, and is now little more than a huge walking skeleton. This particular morning is when his body – which is all he has to pitch against the Japanese – gives up entirely. He dies before work even begins. Meanwhile Rooster MacNeice, a self-centred weasel who full of hatred – Flanagan lists the races and other groupings he despises, and it seems to include everybody – survives through a mind-game: he memorises a page of Mein Kampf every day. Later, he plays a big part in the sequence of events that leads to Darky’s punishment.

Flanagan lets us inside the points of view of one or two others. One has a drawing of the woman he’s left in Australia, copied from a crumbling photograph of her by the artist, Henderson. Henderson’s own strategy has been to keep a sketchbook which he knows will stand as witness even if he doesn’t survive. In fact, his is another of the day’s deaths, from the cholera which is taking a terrible toll in the camp, and it looks as though the book won’t survive. Dorrigo Evans – we’re back to his full name or only his surname now – insists it is burnt along with all the other victims’ possessions. Flanagan has it survive only by a somewhat laboured chance event – there are several in this section – when it is blown off the funeral pyre when one of the four bodies on it explodes.

Dorrigo has his own part to play in Darky’s tragedy, which is what this whole section becomes. He is, obsessively – and, as his orderly suspects from the start, pointlessly – attempting a further amputation of a gangrenous leg which is only the shortest of stumps anyway. The appalling detail that Flanagan goes into, over fourteen pages, is as vivid as anything else in the whole section. Perhaps, by taking us so far into Dorrigo’s experience, he is presenting a nightmarish world in which the vividness of the visceral detail can be evoked as vividly as anything in the previous section dealing with the sensual physicality of his love for Amy. And maybe he also aims to give an indication of Dorrigo’s compulsive, step-by-step determination to control the fate of at least this one man against all odds. But it means that when he is called on to plead with Nakamura not to have Darky subjected to a public beating – he’s ill enough to have been sent to the so-called hospital – he’s too busy. Ah.

I’m not sure why Flanagan has felt it necessary to contrive it so carefully. Perhaps he wants to show that even with the best will in the world, literally, an inexorable fate joined to an equally inexorable Japanese code of military practice will get you in the end. He begins the sequence early when, already weak with dysentery, Darky is concussed by a blow to the head, punishment for not laying his blanket with the fold outwards. On the way to where they are working he stumbles and rips the sole from his boot which, despite his optimistic plans for a repair later, is always terrible news in the jungle. He starts to fall behind his team, after he has to assume the leadership following the death of another man. He falls, or collapses, and as he pulls himself up he dislodges a rock, which hits him. In frustration, he throws it into the jungle, where it hits somebody. (I’m not making this up.) Is it a guard? Phew, no, it’s only Rooster MacNeice – who tells him that he and several others are taking a day off, as they do once a week. The Japanese don’t do a count during the day, so they can get away with it. But… they are in Darky’s team, and he will be blamed if they do get caught. Besides, their actions are making more work for others. He orders them to get to the Line, but only one obeys him.

You can see where this is leading. Kota is stranded in the camp because his truck can’t be driven owing to some hoses having been stolen. It cranks up the agony when we realise that these are the very hoses that Darky took when they were heaving the truck out of the mud, that Dorrigo needed for the makeshift operating theatre that was allowing himself to do the amputation. (Flanagan fills in some of these details in flashback.) So, at a loose end, Kota is walking past Darky after he’s collapsed again. He likes the look of his neck – there’s almost a verbatim repetition of the description of that neck he stared at before his first beheading – and tells the guards to get him kneeling. He wets his sword in the usual way… but it’s another false alarm, to go with the one when Darky realises his stone has hit someone. Kota can’t remember the middle part of his death haiku, so he abandons the idea. Besides, we know that’s not how Darky is going to die. For some reason, and I really don’t know why, Flanagan has revealed this in the first section of the novel. The guards, unexpectedly, send Darky to the hospital tent.

But… Kota orders an inspection, the shortfall of men is discovered and, as expected, Darky is blamed. Kota passes the message to Nakamura that there must be a public flogging and Nakamura has to follow the order. At first we’re inside the points of view of the prisoners who, despite being forced to watch what becomes an ever more brutal beating, each have strategies to push the horror from their minds. Then we’re with Nakamura, forced into justifying himself when Dorrigo finally emerges from the hospital tent to remonstrate with him. But Nakamura’s head is in a bad place, he constantly wishes both that the situation had never arisen and that he had taken three of his amphetamine pills, and he tells the interpreter to stop translating. Other bits of violence have occurred on the way to this impasse, including Nakamura, delivering three hard blows with a pick-handle to ‘the Goanna’, the most hated of the Korean guards. He is about to stop the punishment when he slips and falls, feels he must assert his determination after all, and he allows the guards to continue their relentless beating as he leaves. An hour later, he discovers to his horror that it hasn’t stopped.

Why have I gone into so much detail? Because that’s what Flanagan does. Darky isn’t dead, it transpires, but he is the next time we hear of him. He had managed to get himself to the latrine – he was sick before the beating – and his broken body is discovered in the shit at the bottom of the pit. Flanagan has delivered the tragedy, and it’s as ugly as it could possibly be. The best kind of ordinary Aussie bloke has been reduced to a shapeless bag of bones unrecognisable as a human being.

Other things are going on. Men find themselves forgetting the faces of the women thy love. The man with the drawing, which looks more like Mae West than his wife, can only see Mae West now. Dorrigo, when Flanagan turns his attention to him, is appalled that he can never picture Amy’s face. But at the same time Flanagan wants to give an impression of how, even in what Dorrigo calls the first circle of hell – he’s actually referring to the cholera tent which most of the victims only leave to be taken to the funeral pyre – men cope, do whatever they can in order to survive. For most of them this becomes a form of camaraderie. Somehow, however bad it gets, at least they are not thoroughly brutalised like the Japanese and their psychopathic codes. Flanagan never says it, but there always seems to be a common thread of humanity.

And there’s Dorrigo. His humanity is of a particular kind. We know about his self-depreciation, and there’s plenty of that. But we see his quiet determination to do his best for the men, arguing every day – and particularly on this day, after the bringing forward of the completion date – not to force the ill to work. (Nakamura, of course, is not allowed to show any sign of giving in, although some haggling does go on.) He keeps up appearances, seeing his hat and the bandanna he made from the clothing of a dead Siamese whose quiet death he finds himself admiring, as important ways to keep up morale. His assertiveness with Nakamura – it leads to that punishment of the guard later – is never for his own sake, only the men’s. What was I saying earlier about his reluctant admission of his own heroism?

He’s a thoughtful man in other ways too. He still remembers his poetry, and finds himself having to correct what he considers a misinterpretation of the words ‘Lest we forget’. For him, there is no suggestion in Kipling’s poem – it had to be Kipling – that the memory of heroic struggles will always be remembered, but the opposite. Empires come and go, and he quotes the lines asserting that ‘all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.’ He has reached a kind of existential despair that he never reveals to anyone, not only believing that none of their suffering means anything, but that nobody will remember it. He is absolutely resolute that Henderson’s sketchbook be burnt – the very sketchbook which was writing about in the first section of the novel, in his bitter preface about the way that nobody seems to be remembering. Ironic? You decide.

Other memories. In the first of three little codas, Flanagan has Rooster MacNeice looking back on the day’s events. He is an exception amongst men whose survival depends on any kind of fellow feeling, and he decides he was justified in not speaking up for Darky. He could have said that he knew nothing of the absences, but he might have drawn down more punishment on himself – and besides, he was annoyed with him for stealing a duck egg he had managed to get. He’d seen Darky with the shell, so he is definitely not going to blame himself. But Flanagan decides to give him an unexpected jolt: he finds his own egg after all. He replaces it ‘as if it were some gigantic shame that needed to be hidden.’ But he can’t hide. He takes out Mein Kampf, but he can’t memorise a word of it.

The other codas show the ripples that spread into the far future. Years later Jimmy Bigelow, the one who had always tried to get Darky to display his blanket with the fold outwards, is shown with an obsessive-compulsive disorder: he always makes his own children do this, and lays them across his knee for a smack if they fail. But he never actually hits them…. ‘Perhaps, he wondered, he didn’t make the time or space he should for love,’ choosing ‘the folding of a blanket over the unfolding of locked arms.’ Yep, Richard Flanagan, got it. And the final, one-page chapter describes the Line over the next fifty years. It quickly falls into disrepair after the war and, despite some parts being cleared ‘decades later’, there is little left. ‘Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.’ It could have been written by Dorrigo himself. Or Kipling. But Flanagan has another agenda, and I’m wondering where he’ll go with it next.

1 October
Fourth section…
…which, like the fifth still to come, is short. But the narrative scurries about, starting with Nakamura in a shattered Tokyo. The hole he hides in – most of the citizens have been reduced to finding shelter wherever they can – is near an arch formed by broken walls and fallen beams. It becomes known as a new Rashomon, and I assume that Flanagan has used the name so that his readers will be alerted by the echo: Kurosawa’s film of that name, released only five years after the war, has been interpreted as a commentary on different presentations of the truth in post-war Japan. Sure enough, as soon as he can Nakamura is changing his name and hiding his past. He has seen his own name on a list of wanted men published by the Allies, and soon he is able to make his escape. He can afford to do it with money gained through a particularly squalid act: he takes the roll of dollar bills belonging to an American soldier murdered by somebody else who, in turn, gets his head smashed in with Nakamura’s crowbar. He can afford the rail fare to get out of Tokyo and begin afresh.

The chapters following the fates of the Japanese, and the hated Goanna, now on Death Row, are full of different kinds of squalor. Years pass, and the daily fear of living in rubble is replaced by the comfortable knowledge that the Allies have only a limited appetite for retribution. A very few years after the war, it seems unlikely that there will be further prosecutions for war crimes. Kota has been released without charge after his testimony leads to the prosecution of others, and now he is the respected head of a blood bank. Nakamura is working in a hospital, where he becomes friendly with a doctor well known for never wearing a white coat. It’s much later when Nakamura finds out why. When Nakamura seeks assurance from him that stories of live ‘vivisection’ on conscious Allied servicemen are not true, the doctor tells him, in detail, of what he witnessed at those very experiments. One American, vigorous and full of life, had put all his trust in him: ‘he thought my white coat meant I would help him.’ The friendship fades and dies.

Nakamura, knowing nothing of Kota’s position as director of the blood bank, applies for a job there in the late 1950s. He’s back to using his own name by now and Kota has obviously recognised it. But his way of confirming his identity is, chillingly, to stroke and examine his neck. Meanwhile, back in the 1940s, the Goanna – Korean, and hated by his Japanese superiors as much as by the prisoners – is mystified by his sentence. How could he have committed a war crime? He was only ever doing the job he’d only taken for the money. And he knows that most of the men issuing the orders, right up to the Emperor, are free to get on with their lives while, now having been thrust on to the trapdoor, he awaits the long drop. As he drops, and the chapter ends, he is still mentally protesting about the pay he is owed: ‘Where’s my fifty –’

In a later chapter, there’s a different sort of ending for Kota. Now 105, he is being sought out by a nationalist journalist who likes the way that the old man has been able to offer some spiritual insights into the conduct of the war. Claiming to be a Buddhist, he has gained a reputation for what Flanagan valiantly refrains from describing as a rewriting of history and the journalist wants to speak to him. But Flanagan has another plan for Kota. When the police, acting on the journalist’s suspicions, break into his flat they discover his mummified body lying on the bed. ‘The fluids of the body had left a thick, dark stain on the sheets.’ There’s a copy of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North on the bedside table. That’s what we like. Poetic justice.

Meanwhile the Aussies are fighting their own post-war battles. The first of their chapters opens unpromisingly: ‘They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases.’ Or, like Jimmy Bigelow and several others we know live on, unable to cope. Their aimlessness culminates in an act of stupidity. Darky Gardiner had loved to tell the story of going to a fish and chip place not far from where they all live and, after another drunken night, they go there. It’s closed, so they carry out Darky’s fantasy of freeing the fish. It’s Jimmy Bigelow who smashes the plate glass window to get in, and they ladle the fish from the aquarium and take them in buckets to the harbour. But it’s the follow-up that almost brought tears to my eyes. Next day, repentant, they visit the old Greek who runs the shop and tell him why they did it. And he shakes their hands. He lost his own son in the war and seems to be the first person they have met who sympathises with what they have been through.

And then there’s Dorrigo. Very early on, I remember wondering if Flanagan was indulging in some special pleading on his behalf. What we see of Dorrigo in this section shows how, along with so much else in the jungle, he’s given up on love. We don’t know when he found out about Amy’s death, although there is a letter mentioned that arrives on that event-filled day in the jungle that he seems too preoccupied to take in at the time. After the war, putting off the evil day of his return, he continues on army projects until 1947. But, finally, he arrives to be greeted by the woman whose name he is having trouble remembering. She calls him by a name that mystifies him – his first name, which she always (highly implausibly) insists on using – and it takes him some time to recognise it. And, however many alarm bells are ringing for the reader… he lets the engagement stand. Sure, we find out, he had only ever asked Ella to marry him so he get to her breasts – they left him cold, apparently – but, well, everybody seems to be expecting it. And so on. The marriage quickly proves to be pointless to him, and he’s in bed with another woman a month after the honeymoon. Flanagan never, ever, shows Dorrigo and Ella alone together.

Flanagan seems to feel the need to explain it a bit better. During the cold Tasmanian winter he gets Dorrigo to a farm outside Hobart to return the medals of the man whose leg amputation we witnessed so graphically. The wife, a lonely woman who feels the cold, tells an implausible story that comes to act as a metaphor. Having asked, rhetorically he thinks, if he believes in love, she tells how a musical friend made her hear how every room has its note. The friend would find it by trial and error and, sure enough, one note would have the room resounding back far louder than the note she was singing. To cut a long story short. No, neither of them thinks they will ever find that note again. And yes, he does go to bed with her. What else is there?

At the end of his flight back to Melbourne, he strikes up a conversation, if you can call it that, with a woman whose blouse ‘revealed the beginnings of a cleavage defined by….’ And so on. Aloud, he says ‘So she goes,’ and I wish I could remember what significance that phrase has previously had for him. It’s to do with Amy, surely…. What ends the scene, and this section, is ‘coldness, whiteness, nothing.’ This, and the yearning, reaching hand-movements that go with it, are a reprise of an image from earlier in the visit. In a truck on the way back from the farm the conversation unexpectedly turns to love. What Dorrigo seems to be searching for as the snow beats the windscreen is the tweak he could have made that would have saved the life of the amputee. What he craves, really, is an affirmation of life. Ah.

2 October
Fifth section – to the end
Maybe that’s it. It seems that Dorrigo comes to represent the life-force, the antithesis of the men who had been his captors. In this novel, no Australian kills anybody intentionally whereas, one way or another, the Goanna and two Japanese officers only bring death. Kota is the embodiment of this. Nakamura is responsible for Darky Gardiner’s death, and in the one scene Flanagan offers of him immediately after the war, he kills a man to survive. And, as he is hauled kicking and screaming to the scaffold, the Goanna is desperate to kill a cockroach, just to prove to himself his own power. The Aussies, by contrast, can’t even smash a window without feeling the need to make proper amends – and in this fifth section we see Dorrigo as, literally, the bringer of life.

In case we’re not getting this – and Flanagan does have a tendency to lay it on thick – the big set-piece episode is his miraculous rescue of his family from a raging bush-fire. We’ve already been told of how the family holidays are an annual trial from all of them, and Dorrigo welcomes the chance to avoid the first couple of days. His brother has had a near-fatal heart attack and Dorrigo visits him in hospital in Sydney. I’ll come back to that day, because it’s full of things happening, but Dorrigo finally gets back to Hobart, near where the family is staying. There’s time for the reception dinner being given there in his honour – Flanagan likes to remind us just how great Dorrigo’s reputation is – but he can’t keep putting off his holiday forever. Time to go.

There are reports of the fire, getting worse by the sound of it. He borrows a big old car, lovingly preserved, and regrets having to crash first through a road-block and then through fences. By the time he’s picked up his family following a plausibility-stretching chance encounter, he’s ploughing through the burning upper branches of a fallen tree as the tyres melt. He saves them all. And those hands of his, the ones we’ve seen reaching out yearningly only to find coldness, are badly burnt as he throws out burning branches that have crashed into the back of the car. That’s where his children are – I haven’t mentioned them before because Flanagan hasn’t until this section – and, just for one day, they are a family. The kids have never seen their parents embracing like that before. We know, of course, that it isn’t going to last.

In this final section it is made clear that for Flanagan, the war only ends for his main characters when they die. We follow Nakamura, self-deceiving to the last and able to convince others as well as himself that he has turned into a good man. We hear of Dorrigo, the opposite in this as in so many other ways, convinced until the end only of his own imperfections. Jimmy Bigelow, who has become a main character by now, reaches a kind of contentment only in his nineties when, finally, he realises he remembers nothing of the war. And we discover that Amy didn’t die in the explosion: Ella, like Keith, had lied – and when she and Dorrigo catch sight of each other by chance (neither acknowledges it) we find out about her life and imminent death too.

It feels rather busy, although there are some memorable set-piece moments. These are often linked to a striking image. The bush fire affords a lot of these, and I’ve mentioned some. But So does Jimmy Bigelow’s bugle. He’s the one whose duty it had been, despite a tongue so swollen that he had to find new ways to expel air through his mouth, to play The Last Post at jungle funerals. He’s glad he did it, though he never knew what the notes meant any more than Dorrigo, standing to speak the oration after the padre’s awful death, understands what his words are for. But, somehow, they matter. Jimmy plays The Last Post once more, for his daughter seeking war stories from him for a school project, because he can’t actually tell her anything. She stands for a lot of Australians with no experience of war, in that she never quite gets what it means for him. After his death she sells the battered old thing in a yard sale for a few dollars. (Flanagan offers one concession to his memory as she hands it over: she finds herself saying ‘Rightio!’ to the buyer, which was Jimmy’s favourite word.)

Other deaths, other images – to go, now I think about it, with the deaths of Kota and the Goanna in the previous section. Nakamura seems to be getting away with it. He had evaded any trial, and even the throat cancer that attacks him in middle age is successfully removed. (He rather likes the reediness of his voice afterwards. It fits the gentler personality that even he is now coming to believe in.) But the cancer comes back, and on a visit to Sapporo in the 1960s, something else comes back too. It’s the city’s ice festival, and this year’s theme is the monsters of recent Japanese popular culture. Godzilla is there, but so are others, and as his former lieutenant talks to him about the war, Nakamura’s drugged-up consciousness becomes full of monstrous images. The lieutenant is joking conspiratorially about the Allies, who only pursued war crimes against their own personnel and ignored the far worse things the Japanese did to the Chinese. Does the Major remember those? Of course he does. And soon after Nakamura’s return home, the lieutenant hears of his death. His uber-patient wife, the one who has never heard anything of her husband’s army life, does not tell him about the appalling things her husband raged about on his deathbed, or the terrible way he spoke to all those trying to help him in his dying days. Ah.

Dorrigo gets the most chapters. Flanagan would have us believe his medical reputation only grows through the decades. But Dorrigo doesn’t care, sees his reputation in the same way as he sees his marriage and family life – as something he does to the best of his ability and doesn’t care about. Flanagan doesn’t tell us it’s this one man’s way of coping with his experiences – we’d pretty much got that in the first section, I guess – but we get another of those opposites he goes in for. We’ve seen it with Dorrigo and Nakamura, and we’re also seeing it with Dorrigo and Jimmy Bigelow. Jimmy was the one who wanted to save the sketchbook that is eventually only saved by chance. Yet it’s Jimmy who forgets, whereas Dorrigo never can. It’s the cross he bears until the end of his life… but I’ll come back to that.

Because Flanagan has some more business to get through long before that happens. As in the jungle section, everything takes place in about 24 hours. Dorrigo’s brother Tom is in hospital on the day the family holiday is going to start, and Dorrigo visits him. They talk easily, as they have always been able to do – perhaps it’s because they’ve both witnessed such atrocities in different wars – and the talk comes round to old neighbours. Dorrigo is able to piece together a story of a ‘blackfella’ woman – it’s his brother who uses the word – that he remembers seeing Tom with once. And that she got pregnant. And that the baby was fostered out, because she was a married woman and it certainly wasn’t the husband’s. And that Tom was the father. And that the foster-family were the Gardiners. So… who would have thought it? Darky Gardiner was his brother’s son.

And, taking a stroll over Sydney Harbour Bridge to clear his thoughts (as if), he sees – but it can’t be. Moving into and out of the shadows cast by the girders – it’s how he often thinks of her – is Amy. Neither speaks, each thinking the other hasn’t noticed. He thinks she must have her own life now, maybe 20 or more years after their affair. She’s with two girls, probably happily married…. She thinks he never came back to her because he’s a rat. She doesn’t know that he’s always thought she was dead. (As it happens, she has cancer, and Flanagan tells us she has only months to live. He likes all loose ends tied.) It’s after these bombshells that Dorrigo gets on to the plane to Tasmania where he will soon be having to save all his family at once. You couldn’t make it up.

He dies in hospital, shortly after he is fatally injured in a car crash years later. So, unlike Jimmy, Dorrigo is killed by the war in the end: his womanising only began after it, and he was driving home from the assignation in the present day that frames the whole novel. Flanagan doesn’t make a big thing of this – he makes nothing of it at all – because it would be just too glib. What he focuses on instead are what the medical staff take to be his ‘ravings’. But unlike Nakamura, he doesn’t become monstrous. His approaching death seems to bring him the most lucid understanding he’s ever had.

At first he dreams of Amy in those shafts of light that seem to have become a motif, and the other women he has known. And then he’s in the jungle. He remembers the day we know about, the one when so many died in spite of his efforts. And then he remembers another day in which he sees himself – ironically, since he’s on his deathbed – as Charon, the ferryman. He has to choose 100 men to march to another camp, even further into the jungle, and he thinks he’s passing a death sentence. He isn’t, in fact – one of the men he chooses is Jimmy – and, before they leave, the men all thank him: they focus on what he’s done for them not, like him, on the things he’s failed to do. And I wonder if this is the first time he’s ever remembered it. (Meanwhile, Flanagan can’t resist making one of those increasingly heavy-handed contrasts between the Aussies and the Japanese. On the same day, Dorrigo witnesses the brutality of the officers’ treatment of their own men. Part of the training, we know from Nakamura, is to learn how to give disciplinary blows to the face.)

His drawn-out death doesn’t end there. Even when, following remembered lines from his beloved ‘Ulysses’ and a remembered Japanese minimalist ‘poem’ consisting of a circle, he has a revelation and actually dies, it’s still not over. Our man’s always charging windmills – another of his literary conceits – and the Sudanese orderly quotes what he thought were his last words about charging the windowsill…. And only then do we get the final chapter. It’s about loss and – and what? He’s back in that memorable day in the jungle – amputation, Darky’s savage beating – when he didn’t have time to read the letter from Ella. This is when she tells him Amy died in the explosion, and he doesn’t know that it’s ‘the only lie Ella ever told him.’

Flanagan can’t resist two final images. The first is the romantic novel Dorrigo is reading in the jungle and picks up again after Ella’s terrible news. He turns the page to discover that the last pages have been ripped out for toilet paper. He realises ‘the love story would go on forever and ever, world without end. / He would live in hell, because love is that also.’ And guess what is growing outside his hut when he wanders out: ‘a crimson flower’. Reader, that camellia was always Amy’s flower and, as the novel ends, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’m left feeling uneasy. After having only read the first section, maybe one eighth of the book, I was commenting on Dorrigo’s bitter preface to the book of POW drawings. I suspected then that Flanagan’s intention is to redress the balance, and nothing that happens in the novel after that has made me change my mind. Everything in it confirms the brutality of all the Japanese, except one, whilst all the Australians soldiers, except one, are good blokes. The exceptions – Nakamura’s wife and Rooster MacNeice – are not main characters.

Dorrigo must be writing in the early 1990s, and is disgusted that at that time the Japanese were still offering little no acknowledgement of the crimes perpetrated, instead creating shrines to their dead, including convicted war criminals. We don’t discover from anything in the novel whether this is still the case, so we have to conclude that Flanagan is ok with that. He is content to perpetuate the idea which, I presume, is still prevalent amongst many in Australia, that there is something inherently lacking in the Japanese psyche.

I can understand this anger. If, like Flanagan’s, my father had been a POW in one of the labour camps I would be angry too, and would like to tell his side of the story. But I think it is dangerous to create a fiction in which the yellow man is a dark, self-deceiving mirror image of the white man. There are hints that it is the brutal, militaristic culture that is to blame – the Goanna’s experience in training demonstrates this, and Flanagan is making a point when a Korean time-server is the only main character who is executed – but, somehow, it goes deeper than that. We are not invited, in any way, to feel the pain of the major who perpetuates a cruel system or the doctor who was traumatised by his experience in the ‘vivisection’ experiments. What we remember – what, without any doubt at all, is what Flanagan wants us to remember – are the atrocities. The other side did not behave like human beings, and they still aren’t admitting it.

In a novel whose author clearly wants to be taken seriously, it’s not enough.