reading can seriously damage your ignorance
This article might contain spoilers for new readers of The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
And after, no one will really ever remember it. Like the greatest crimes, it will be as if it never happened. The suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many; maybe it all exists only within these pages and the pages of a few other books. Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning. Horror just is. And while it reigns, it is as if there is nothing in the universe that is not.
NRttDN, p. 23
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about death, about fading memory, about love, about horror and about suffering. Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker winner has found a way to turn the majestic lines of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” into prose making the novel a sad poetic story on the essence of life: the temporal existence which fades for ever and ever.
There is a lot going on in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and most of it is implicit between the horrific lines of torture, gore, filth, and suffering. I will focus mainly on the fading memory and theatre of life, with its curtains drawn and closed, as that struck me most.
As mentioned in an earlier post the novel fairly early mentions the poem by Tennyson called “Ulysses”. Dorrigo Evans first recites some lines when he is in Lynette Maison’s adultrous arms. Like Ulysses he nears the end of his life. “I am become a name…I am part of all that I have met” (NRttDN, p. 18). He recites some lines again at the end of the novel. These majestic lines are
…all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move…
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”, ll. 19-21
This forms the heart of the novel. Especially in the final part of the novel Flanagan follows a lot characters to their deaths.
The topic of the novel is the Line, the Siam-Burma railway line, on which his father worked as an Australian POW. But the novel uses the horror and suffering of that railway construction as a vehicle for something bigger. The story of the Line stops about half way the novel and then continues with the aftermath up to the deaths of most of the main characters. By using a lot of pages on this aftermath, the reader also feels the story, the horrors, the suffering of the Line gruesomely told in the first part, slowly fade. It becomes something that happened before, it becomes a part of memory. Flanagan wouldn’t have reached this effect if he kept going back to the Line in flashbacks. The Line becomes a margin which fades.
Flanagan connects memory with life itself. The novel starts with Dorrigo Evans’ first memories, “Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother” (NRttDN, p. 1). At the end of the novel we have his final memory: “He remembered another poem, he could see the poem in its entirety, but he did not want to see or know it…” (NRttDN, p. 444). The beginning was chaotic,
Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.”
(NRttDN, p. 1)
And so is the end,
He was in any case hurtling backwards into an ever faster swirling maelstrom of people, things, places, backwards and round deeper and deeper into the growing grieving dancing storm of things forgotten or half-remembered, stories, lines of poetry, faces, gestures misunderstood, love spurned, a red camellia, a man weeping, a wooden church hall, women, a light he had stolen from the sun–
(NRttDN, pp. 443-4)
Dorrigo Evans has gone in a circle: his life ends as it began. This enforces the idea of the circle versus the line.
The line is, of course, represented by the railway Line:
For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only.
(NRttDN, pp. 443-4)
The Line symbolizes our search for hope and meaning. The Line is built for the greatness of the Empire. The Japanese get their meaning from worshipping the Emperor and therefore don’t care about the costs of building the railway. But, as the novel states, all lines are finite; they must end. The line is also metaphoric as it stands for the journey through time: the further you get back in time, the more it fades into nothingness: “no one will really ever remember it”.
Against this line stands the circle. The circle is represented Shisui’s death poem. He drew the poem when requests came at his death bed to write his death poem. The circle is seen in Zen Buddhism as ensō and stands for enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void).
Shisui’s poem rolled through Dorrigo Evans’ subconscious, a contained void, an endless mystery, lenghtless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle–antithesis of the line.
(NRttDN, pp. 28)
In some way, the line could be seen as life, it fades in the distance, whereas the circle is death, it is eternal.
Everything will be forgotten. The horrors of the Line as with all the rest. The Narrow Road to the Deep North does not give any hope or meaning, it doesn’t state why we exist, or should exist. It presents a life as it begins and ends, with its horrors, its hardships and its pains. It is a poetic mirror of existence.
…All times I have enjoy’dGreatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with thoseThat loved me, and alone, on shore, and whenThro’ scudding drifts the rainy HyadesVext the dim sea: I am become a name;For always roaming with a hungry heartMuch have I seen and known; cities of menAnd manners, climates, councils, governments,Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;And drunk delight of battle with my peers,Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.I am a part of all that I have met;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. 7-21
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2013