reading can seriously damage your ignorance
A world of dew
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle
I am half way through Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and I don’t really know what to think of it. When I started reading it was difficult to get a static point from where I could stabilize myself and get to grips with the story. Time shifts, people fade in and out and for me it took to the second part before I finally settled on the different plot lines in the novel. I now feel compelled to re-read the first part again to appreciate it more.
The language in the beginning is poetic, grim and somewhat chaotic, yet it does change into a more colloquial style in the second part. Reading through these first chapters it is like going outside with a bright sun shining after staying in a dark room for a long time: it is difficult to adjust to the light, making everything hazy. “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” (NRttDN, p. 1) as the novel starts with Dorrigo Evans’s first memory. Early memories, like the hazy light, are blurry.
In this pool of light, to extend the metaphor, time seems be lost as well. It is difficult to understand all the scenes and the plot jumps from moments in time to other moments in time. Apart from getting used to the light it could also be that time shifting reflects that time is irrelevant. Dorrigo Evans has two main important themes in his life, love and suffering, and he has (fifty years later as we read in part 1, chapter 6) only the memory left. With memory time has lost its meaning, the only thing that remains is the fading out of that what we remember. Half way through the novel there seems to be a better divide, we have got used to the light. We know better when what happened and who is who what their relationship is towards each other. The chapters that follow each other are about the same plot line and that helps in getting settled in the story
There are no quotation marks when people talk, and I’m still struggling why that is. Maybe this is because it makes the words that are told and those that are spoken blurred, all part of the same pool of memory. It struck me, but whether it is relevant or not, I actually don’t know.
I liked the allusion to “Ulysses” by Tennyson in the beginning. I actually taught that poem to my students a few months ago and it has always stuck to my mind since. “Ulysses” is about a man growing older but not willing to let go of his nature (which is in Ulysses’ case going on adventure). Flanagan focuses more on the memory: “I am become a name, he said…I am a part of all that I have met” (NRttDN, p. 16) as Dorrigo quotes Tennyson. The poem follows with the captivating lines:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fadesFor ever and forever when I move.(Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”, ll. 19-21)
I think I was held back by the subject of the novel. I simply didn’t know enough of the Second World War in Asia to understand some parts of or to feel with the story. It is a love story, it’s a story of unimaginable struggle and suffering. It is difficult to imagine certain scenes merely because as a European I have difficulty in imagining Asian scenes. I think I unconsciously use a lot of the images from Tour of Duty, an American Vietnam war series in the 80s and 90s , simply because it is one of my rare frames of reference.
The love story isn’t as soppy as I expected to be. It is about loving one another while both are already attached to a lesser, mediocre partner. This kind of love complicates life, it challenges fidelity, what makes you happier and how much are you willing to destroy to find true love?
I must say I was a bit weary at first to read the Australian perspective on the Burma-Siam Death Railway, but I get slowly drawn into the topic. I have actually watched a BBC documentary on the matter (see below). It is another example of the many insane parts of human history and the capability of man to let his kind suffer for something quite useless. You don’t get a chance to really know the characters. You read some stories about them but not too much. This is wonderfully done, you can’t get attached to them too much, but you are compelled to read on.
I was, however, a bit annoyed when Flanagan let’s two of the Japanese talk to each other: Nakamura and Kota. When they talked about the greatness of Japan in part 2, chapters 14 and 16, it all seemed too much constructed, too artificial. There were two things that bothered me. First of all I felt the Japanese speaking through the pen of an Australian (and I also wondered how difficult it is to voice the ‘other side’ as an author). Second, it felt as an attempt to show the Japanese side of the story, but doesn’t give them much room. Paradoxically, the scene suggests to make Nakamura a rounder character, but he still remains flat. He is like a coin beaten several times: it covers more space, but is actually flatter. Like the coin we get to know more about Nakamura’s character but his story seems to be one of many making him less interesting.
Still some 200 pages left. I’m not expecting much in plot. I don’t think this novel is about getting to a certain end when everything will be unravelled. Dorrigo Evans will survive, Darky Gardiner will die (as stated on p. 15). It is not about the prisoners being rescued. This novel is about dipping in the pool of suffering, about the human condition under extreme circumstances. The love plot needs some resolve, however, as both Amy and Ella are not mentioned in that same chapter starting on page 15. I expect more of the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because somehow I am compelled to read on.