Richard Flanagan

A review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I’ve tried to invent new flowers; new stars,
new flesh, new languages
A Season in Hell

I loved being immersed in The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

It was akin to being in a tumultuous ocean of hope and doubt. The preservation of human dignity crashed into everything that would attempt to desecrate it. Unthinkable cruelty roared in the wind, while elsewhere, dust motes danced in the light of a bookshop as a bond ignited in a moment, and smouldered throughout two lives, ruining each one for any other love. Descriptions of unimaginable suffering would melt into nothing as the novel suddenly seemed to assert that even in the midst of hell, there can be the assurance that the magnificence of a small kindness cannot be destroyed.

And throughout the horror, there appeared occasionally things that were utterly unexpected and lovely.

At the heart of this book (which is at least a second cousin to Conrad’s dark masterpiece) is the principle of haiku. The writing slides, often on a sharp edge, from the shit-filled mud of a nightmare to the tenderness of a man sharing his last morsel of food with someone he only half likes. But the juxtaposition of opposites (and near opposites) is never mishandled – filth/purity, hatred/desire, inexorable life/the thud of death. The text becomes almost Escher-esque as Flanagan deftly handles the contradictory perspectives in the vast spread of material that makes up this incredible work.

Written over more than a decade, the book is a sprawling feast of prose, poetry and other scribblings, perhaps after the haibun style. I hadn’t heard of haibun before realising that the 17th Century Japanese poet, Basho, wrote possibly the first book in the genre. Basho’s haibun had the same title as Flanagan’s novel. Haibun is described in several ways (traditional and modern), but seems to be essentially haiku mixed with prose, often in the form of a diary or travel journal. Listening to Flanagan in conversation with Phillip Adams ( ), there’s a sense in which writing this book became an epic journey of the soul for Flanagan – something he wrote and rewrote.

The surrealist and magic-realist aspects of the novel are evident, not only because Flanagan uses them as devices, but because both the lived experiences of the slaves on the Thai-Burma Railway, and the rationale behind the Emperor’s project, defied reality. History has shown the Emperor’s plan to be flawed – the whole world was not destined to come under one umbrella. While attempting to usher in the flawed scheme, one Japanese Major is shown to be surviving on shabu (methamphetamine), his mind skewed, his energy revived without food, his decision-making utterly flawed.

Before ending up on that railway line, none of the people involved could have conceived that what they lived through there was possible. Both the horrendous living conditions and the war crimes would be unimaginable to most human beings.

Beheadings are set beside the exquisite beauty of poetry; cannibalism hovers on the fringes of war-time memory; the vivisection of human beings is introduced as ‘only a myth’, but then it is revealed to have been the lived experience of Americans captured by the Japanese; Australian POWs were routinely beaten, often to death, for ‘misdemeanours’ such as of not having ‘the fold’ on their clothes facing in the right direction. Years later, one ex-POW is portrayed, living with his fears, insisting that his children fold their clothes just so.

They cannot know that their father is trying to protect them from the ‘unexpected smash of a rifle butt’ … trying to prepare them for the radical uncertainty of being, for who could know ‘what horrors this hard world had ready for the unwary.’

For the POWs, reality became a highly unpredictable beast.

Flanagan neither excuses nor condones the behaviours of the perpetrators of cruelty on the Line. He provides the most poignant insights into the personalities of the Japanese officers involved in inflicting cruelty. And while, in some cases ‘justice’ might be seen to be done as the story progresses, there is no sense in which the reader is invited to ‘will’ that turn of events.

Flanagan spoke to Phillip Adams about being taught not to hate by a father who’d seen the worst of human behaviours – things that could eat one away from the inside out. He says he’s been affected by the Japanese notion of communal guilt, especially its examination in ‘Rashomon’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The story examines a murder from differing perspectives.

Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North readers are allowed glimpses into the psyches of different characters. And, often there is an aching as it becomes clear how utterly misguided some have been in (mis)judging others.

The lack of quotation marks to indicate speech is discussed in Flanagan’s conversation with Phillip Adams. He says he wanted to allow readers in – to let them invent, to show humility towards the reader. I think he achieves this aim, and the text is open to readers in other ways – the point of view shifts, the story moves freely from memory to action, from place to place and mind to mind. This allows readers to merge with the text, to embellish, and to add their own perspectives, their own stories and struggles.

I should note that I’ve not always used quotation marks to delineate exactly where I’m quoting from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but I’ve quoted from the novel throughout this piece. Flanagan’s language is so rich. It’s the best medium with which to describe the journey of reading the book.

Finding Tasmania casually entwined into the fabric of the novel was a pleasure for me, someone who was born here, who cares for this place and its people. It’s wonderful to find the familiar woven seamlessly into a journey of such enormous scope. The Hope and Anchor stars, along with Cleveland, the ’67 bushfires, Ferntree, Launceston High, a North Hobart football jumper, Ben Lomond, and the fish shop in North Hobart (which could be any fish shop of the time across the country). Lindsay Tuffin (known to many readers of the Tasmanian Times) even has a cameo role as ‘a former Anglican pastor’ who’d been ‘defrocked for some unspecified moral turpitude.’ (The humour is exquisite throughout the novel, and especially so because it’s set in such sharp relief against the agony of dysentery, lice, starvation and beatings.)

Readers are transported from Australia to the Middle East in wartime, from ancient Greece to the Thai-Burma railway, from Japan to the intimacy of an Adelaide bookshop where an Angry Penguin launches a politico-literary movement (just before Dorrigo meets the love of his life). And throughout the journey is the continual return to the hell of despair in a jungle that tried to steal away human dignity in an outpouring of cruelty that defies belief (even though its veracity has been recorded on the pages of history, in the lived experience of survivors, and within the aching memory of their families).

The overall effect is one of resplendence – a literary feast with nothing spared.

There are many ways to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North – scholars might become intrigued by the intertextuality between Flanagan’s work and Basho’s haibun of the same title; feminists may look at the depiction of women in Flanagan’s writing and/or the circumstances of women during that time in history; others may follow the links between this great work of art and the many other texts (poems, books, art) lying in the novel as beckoning doorways (not to mention the interconnections between this novel and Flanagan’s oeuvre); artists might find themselves engulfed by the rich imagery and symbols in the novel, the sweeping brush stroke of Shisui’s poem – a circle (the antithesis of the Line), and the flower that blossoms on the novel’s cover and throughout its pages; the haiku – half this, half that; Jungian interpretations of the whole thing as a jungle of the collective human psyche; the novel might be seen as a commentary on the act of creating art; or an existential treatise on the whole of existence; or it can be read primarily for its links to the lived and written history of the war and the Burma Railway; or a fiction that resonates with all these aspects.

I particularly love the fact that Flanagan hasn’t allowed the history and historiography of the Thai-Burma railway, and Australia’s involvement, to dominate the narrative. It threads it way through, of course. But, the novel has a life of its own – it germinates in unexpected places, its insistent vegetation refuses to behave in ways that are able to be controlled. Bodies become nations, or landscapes – jungles become thoughts and vice versa – time sweeps across the pages as great waves of ‘sea-time’ or the green circle of time on a one-handed Bakelite clock – the fickleness of fate is set against the great sweep of history that tries to normalise war by showing its repetition over time. One of the beheaders despises his victims for allowing him to kill them on a whim, and then quotes classical Japanese verse as if he’s committed no crime.

In this book, there was never going to be a simple recording of the nightmare endured by Australian POWs.

Dorrigo is, of course, central to the novel, but he’s also, oddly enough, a bystander – even to his own life. He soars early on in his share of the story, when he takes a spectacular mark, playing footy at Launceston High. In the glory of it, as a teenager with the other boys around, he realises that nothing in his life would ever be as real to him again. And for all his career victories, his survival of the war as an officer and a gentleman greatly loved by his ‘thousand’, his prowess with women … he struggles to enter into the ‘real world’ or to know even what that might be. It’s an odd way to live one’s life – journeying away from its apex at such a young age.

Each person is depicted as being very much alone as they jostle about on the earth like the motes of dust mentioned several times in the novel. The writing gives as much weight to the inner voyage of human beings as the outer one. Young soldiers are described as being ‘unknown to themselves. So much that lay within them they were now travelling to meet.’

The cover of the novel becomes a visual haiku as it wraps with aplomb around the book’s thousands upon thousands of words. Viewing the front cover in isolation, the image is evocative of robes or scarves waving in the wind – clouds at sunset or dawn, possibly – or something deeply visceral and sensual. But, on opening the book, the image (painted by Diane Masters) reveals itself to be a flower with its stamens on the spine of the book. Just as haiku slips from one meaning to the next, so does the cover image. And, of course, the flower in the novel in synonymous with Amy, Amie Amour … the woman fated to enter Dorrigo’s life and affect him so deeply.

Having the flower as a pictorial epigraph on the book’s cover (although I am not certain that Flanagan chose it) and the inclusion of the brushed circle-poem in the text (an image painted by Shisui as his death poem), in writing of the ‘smell of human beings in trouble’ and by painting so many visceral images, it seems that Flanagan yearns, along with the poet, Rimbaud, to invent new languages that will transgress the often frustrating boundaries of the textual medium.

The book would make a beautiful film in the hands of someone capable of adapting story and text to that wonderfully evocative medium.

The novel is particularly resonant with invitations to explore other works, to draw them into the mix of The Narrow Road to the Deep North – the myth of Icarus, the writings of Basho, Celan, Cervantes, Homer, Issa, Shisui, and many others. I haven’t had time to explore them fully but I can imagine in the future, scholars finding rich veins of intertextuality between the novel and other works of art.

Painterly images and pictorial vignettes abound, and on one level, the book has the sense of being part novel, part photograph-album, part scrap-book.

Or, an old quilt.

The patterns embroidered are repeated in a gentle rhythm. The silvery sea of fish on an abandoned blue-silk lounge chair swarm around a soldier in the Middle East. As he lies on the chair, he reminds Dorrigo of ‘a branch of bull kelp washed up on a strange shore.’ The watery chair shimmers when first recorded, and later resounds as a chorus, repeated in ever slowing eddies. The jungle is painted as being inside men’s thoughts, in the actual world of the Thai-Burmese railway, and in nightmares. The single, crimson flower appears throughout the book. The unfinished circle of a death poem merges into the obol, the Greek coin used to pay the ferryman on the way to the world of the dead. The circle is also resonant with the void, enlightenment, and the essence of life, (especially important in Zen Buddhism).

Touches of bright blue appear here and there – in the flutter of a vivid blue butterfly, in the silk armchair, and in the gas-flame eyes of Amy.

The cobbling together of image, vignette, poem and story might seem haphazard at times, with something of the bower bird about it, but it’s deliberately so, I’m sure. The rag-bag effect is symbolic of the chaos of wartime, the thrift required, the random turns of fate, the utterly uncontrollable jungle, the way memories morph and melt.

War becomes a mosaic as reality is shattered to pieces, and never quite returns to any real sense of normalcy.

It’s little wonder that during the Second World War, movements such as Surrealism, Dada and Abstract Expressionism arose in Europe, and took root in Australia along with the subversive art and literature of the Angry Penguins.

War does not make sense.

How can studying a man’s neck for its capacity for ‘clean beheading’ become a form of sensuality for a military man? After expert decapitation, a Japanese Colonel savours the pleasurable memory of the moment, describing his love for necks, which after meeting his sword become ‘those colours, the red, the white, the yellow.’

In spite of the apparent ‘neverendingness’ of the suffering on the Line, however, the novel makes it clear that Life could not be stopped by it. In several places, on the frontispiece and in the body of the text, is the image of an incomplete circle, brushed in ink or wash. It’s a Japanese death poem written by Shisui.


The swiftly drawn brush-stroke stands in defiance of the railway line. Life, we are told, continues after the cessation of the Line – tendrils thrusting around the teak sleepers (darkly ironic because there is at least one dead human being ‘sleeping’ for every piece of wood), seeds germinate amid the tibias, scapulas, vertebrae, fibulas and femurs.

Weeds are welcomed by the Line. Humans are only one of many things. Even though this might seem harsh, I think the musing is about ‘life’ rather than ‘death’ carrying on.

In the end life subsumes death.

One prisoner of war comes to realise that everything will go on and of him, nothing will remain … even his memory will mean no more than fallen bamboo and the inescapable mud. In another part of the novel, there is the realisation that the highest kind of living is the freedom to be one’s own form – a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.

So many people are depicted as ‘lost’ in the novel. The lives of countless soldiers vanish, but there are also the ordinary tragedies – the strange half-life of Amy’s husband, Keith, who is at a loss as to how to live his time on earth. He’s shown driving with Dorrigo, ‘leaning forward … strewn over the steering wheel like a gale-fallen tree trunk, his big hands moving incessantly up and down the wheel as if it were a fortune teller’s crystal ball, and he was forever searching the long, straight, flat roads of Adelaide for something, an illusion that might help him live.’ Being solitary in the midst of many, and uncertain of one’s purpose in the scheme of the universe, is a theme throughout the book.

Dorrigo is unsure of his place in the world.

Before he meets Amy for the first time, he’s in a bookstore. It’s no coincidence that he meets the great love of his life in store dedicated to words. Dorrigo later tells Amy that words were ‘the first beautiful thing I ever knew.’ Just before he meets her, there are dust motes – symbols of fate – ‘particles, wildly spinning, shimmering, randomly bouncing into each other and heading off into entirely new directions.’ Shortly afterwards, the ‘woman with the red flower had walked over to where he stood.’

His life would not be the same after that.

Dorrigo experiences a sense of communion in that bookstore, being around ‘such books’ … ‘At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.’ The Narrow Road to the Deep North is such a book – a portal into that universal book – and I love the irony that I cannot tell you that without specifying whether I mean Basho’s version or that of Flanagan.

Dorrigo finds that the only part of his life that seems real is with Amy.

The novel is similar, in a way. The war, Dorrigo’s ambivalence about his purpose … there is often a sense that so little is ‘real’.

There is a plot in the novel, and it’s required, but somehow it seems to point to the fact that no matter what happens in life, the sequence of events will have very little to do with what actually matters … rather, as the novel suggests, what matters is more about ‘the drift of things.’

I haven’t read all of Flanagan’s novels, but I was hooked after The Unknown Terrorist. Political incision is definitely one of Flanagan’s talents. In his conversation with Phillip Adams, he says that more people died on the Line than there are words in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Given the weight of the book, it’s an image that sticks. But, rather than dwell on the barbarism of this fact, Flanagan gives Dorrigo dialogue about the Egyptian pyramids and other great feats of human engineering. Dorrigo suggests to some of his men that ‘maybe that’s how they’ll remember the Japs’ – for their greatness, and not for the suffering involved in the construction of the Line.

Dorrigo doesn’t hunger for revenge, nor does Flanagan. The attention to Japanese art and literature throughout the novel, and the display of the Japanese officers’ love of poetry (among other cultural pursuits) tempers the depictions of inhumane acts.

War is horrendous.

I don’t think it can exist without being a crime.

We remember it, and we should. Jimmy Bigelow plays the well known notes we hear when remembering war, ‘lest we forget,’ but forget what? Forget that war is vile?

Jimmy plays at all the appropriate war memorial ceremonies, but one description of his playing is particularly poignant. It begins on the Line. He has to play at a funeral. It’s at a time when no one, not even Lindsay Tuffin, can speak of God any more. Jimmy struggles to play because of his diseased tongue, his excoriated lips. The text moves from his utter agony as he plays the simple tune, to existential issues. ‘Music asked questions of questions, and of these questions there was no end, every breath of Jimmy’s amplified in a brass cone spiralled out towards a shared dream of human transcendence that perished in the same sound, that was just out of reach …’

But at the funeral for fallen soldiers, at ceremonies at home, Jimmy must play. The novel suggests that in order to survive, the Australian POWs had to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

After the war, Dorrigo hated having virtue ascribed to him. He felt it was ‘vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.’ He struggles to accept himself at all to some extent, let alone to accept the veneration of an adoring public.

Dorrigo would prefer to be back in the ‘sea-time’ he enjoyed with Amy in South Australia. Water is a constant element in the book – in the form of the beating rain on the Line, or the liquid poured over a sword before a beheading, but also as a symbol of the capacity for restoration or change. At one point some fish fall into ‘the sound of water.’ It’s a pivotal moment of absolution. At another point, when the men on the Line are filthy, having been forced not to bathe for days, we are asked, ‘how beautiful is water? Beatitudes of the flesh, blessings of the world beyond the veil – clean skin, weightlessness, the rushing universe of fluid calm.’

Like so much in this book, water is handled with care, with regard for its capacity to be multifaceted. Again, Flanagan’s words are so often like Escher’s images, seeking to escape, wanting to shift into another form, if only the reader would like to join them.

The tender and exquisite climax of the novel was, for me, the use of the term, cobber, by a gentle person. We are told he was able to say it, because of his instinct for the ‘oldest, truest words’ in the language he had learned in Australia. And he could say it without loading the word with the ‘treacherous weight of mate.’ The same man creates a meal of such generosity as to be heart-wrenching. After the starvation in the mud-filled jungle-horror, where a duck’s egg seemed like paradise and a single grain of rice loomed much larger than a continent, the simple feast provided for some returned soldiers carries enormous weight.

The same man forgives a petty crime and shares his own suffering. I won’t spoil the scene by explaining further, but the whole world seems to make sense after reading it – ‘the meaning, nothing … the drift, everything.’

There is so much not covered in this review – the use of fire and light as motifs, the juxtaposition of lies and truth, the revelation of the parentage of a key character, marriage, nationalism, racism, ambition vs ennui, to name a few. There will be many things written over the years about The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The overwhelming sense I had on reading it was privilege at being given the gift of such a well written, incredibly resonant, and deeply thoughtful work crafted by a fellow Tasmanian. I think it worthy of great acclaim.

I hope it receives it.

I have to close with a touch of sentimentality because the book struck chords that were very dear to me. I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North soon after the death of my father, a man who loved words and the natural world, loathed war, and loved water in all its forms, but especially the sea. He loved fish, good food and humour.

I wish Dad had lived long enough to read Flanagan’s latest novel. He would have loved it. Although, perhaps he can read it (in his share of the great ‘neverendingness’ of human beings). And maybe he’s discussing the thing right now, over a lager with Arch, Weary, and others involved on the Line. I’m sure there’d be some fresh fish and chips involved as well. Hopefully, in that place (if it exists) where difference is forgotten, and the filth of crime can be washed away by the rushing universe of fluid calm, the Mountain Lion (or the Japanese guard on whom he was based) might be serenading them all, accompanied by the other Bing, of course.

Diane Caney

NB For insights into the process of writing of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, listen to Richard Flanagan and Phillip Adams in conversation

Diane Caney was the resident poet at Chado – The Way of Tea from August 2011-July 2013. Her PhD thesis on the intertextuality between the art of both Patrick White and Sidney Nolan is on the shelves of the MONA Library in the section dedicated to Nolan.