Winton Pawprints 

Winton (c.1995-2012) was our beloved shop cat and still has the last word every month in her regular column.

The Narrow Road...

 - Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Richard Flanagan's new novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North leaps from early 20th century Tasmania and the remotest of remote hamlets, Cleveland, an old coaching village fallen on hard times, to illicit love in a fading but still grand old South Australian hotel in the shadow of World War 2 marching orders, to the horrors of being a slave worker on the Burma Railway, to Tokyo after the WW2 fire-bombing, to a walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge and the literal passing of old love on a glorious 60s Sydney day. But despite the rapidly changing locales this is a very quiet book. A rambling meditation on memory, on love, on duty, on leadership, and on the public and the private, and the fact that history is written by the victors.

Dorrigo Evans is the only one of his family to pass the 'Ability Test' at the end of his schooling, aged 12-he goes on to become a doctor, and in this profession becomes a reluctant leader of men, on the Burma railroad, or, as its victims christen it, 'The Line'. After the war, while in private he indulges a taste for whisky and women other than his wife, in public he becomes the reluctantly celebrated face of heroism on 'the Line'. The side they put on coins and stamps, as he wryly frames it. This face being the one he has to consciously construct for his ulcerated, skeletal, cholera-plagued men of the Line: 'It's only our faith in illusions that makes life possible. It's believing in reality that does us in every time'. After all, he muses as he tries to write about the merciless beating of Darky Gardiner, one of the awful climaxes the book builds to-a beating witnessed by 200 helpless men: '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.'
Dorrigo's quest for understanding is central to the novel, but there are many characters whose philosophies and opinions weave in around his, including a few of the Japanese slave-drivers. Dorrigo is a classicist, as are Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura. When not cutting off heads or ordering methamphetamine-fuelled beatings, they drink bitter tea and wax about their passion for traditional Japanese literature and the Japanese spirit, especially for Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North: 'In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.' Whilst not defending Japanese behaviour during the war, the book does suggest that all empire building is reliant on such self-delusion and a rigorous exercise of 'non-freedom'.

I found Narrow Road to be a thought-provoking book, a 467 page zen koan. It has also led me to the second hand store to track down a copy of Russell Braddon's best selling memoir of his time in Changi and 'on the Line', The Naked Island-I read this in early adolescence and feel it's time for a re-read. Steve at the 2nd hand shop has of course sent me home with even more reading on the subject: Remembering Weary (one can't help but think of Weary Dunlop when reading Narrow Road); A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal by Robin Rowland; Changi Photographer: George Aspinall's Record of Captivity; and The Men of the Line: Stories of the Thai-Burma Railway Survivors. All available to you if you pick up Narrow Road and want to read further.  Winton


By the time you read this it will be only days away from Election 2013, but hopefully you'll turn your thoughts to Indigenous Literacy Day on the 4th instead and donate, buy books, organise an event, or contribute in some way to this very worthy cause. At least buy yourself a copy of The Blue Duck cookbook on the 4th-we'll send 5% to the foundation and you can go in the draw for a breakfast for two! 

 This month I'm tempted to finally give Thomas Pynchon's daunting complexity a go with his new book Bleeding Edge, and Cecile Yazbek's guest review has me leaning towards The Walking, a timely topic if ever there was. The new Margaret Atwood also calls, as do all the Penguin green crime series-I wasn't surprised to see that David and Janice have been indulging in a bit of historical whodunit. Then, at long last, I can find out where Erlendur's been in Arnaldur Indridason's new outing, Strange Shores. And while on the crime pages, I see there's a new Jo Nesbo, plus Catherine Titasey's Thursday Island mystery, My Island Homicide, sounds interesting. 

Onto a bit of true crime, and Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere looks like it will be an engaging look at small town America darkness, which I hope to follow with the larger picture as painted by Alexander Cockburn in A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture.  On the Trail of Genghis Khan should blow away some of my election despair, which I will then refuel with David Marr's Quarterly Essay on George Pell. And 'for how did we all get here?' reading (having finished Flanagan's Narrow Road) I thought Arthur Herman's The Cave and the Light: Plato vs Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization might have, if not answers, some good excuses. Viki