“Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.” (courtesy and (c) Australian War Memorial)
There is a terrible beauty to the exploration of human nature’s inherent contradictions in Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Written in response to his father’s harrowing time as one of Colonel “Weary” Dunlop’s 1000 men, Australian soldiers who were captured in Java in World War Two by the Japanese before being forced to labour under horrendous conditions on the “Line” building the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, it captures in powerfully unsettling fashion humanity’s seemingly endless capacity to oppose itself at every turn.
Where there is great honour and integrity, there is also barbaric and blindly devotional adherence to unquestioned beliefs, where beauty and love caress there is also the cruel, unyielding hand of hatred, and in those times where great camaraderie and tenderness is present, there is also astoundingly unfeeling violence.
It is something that the central character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North – its title is drawn from a treasured work Oku no Hosomichi by revered 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō – Tasmanian Colonel Dorrigo Evans, whose life and accompanying tortured internal monologue pre, post and during war forms the central core of this richly-expressed novel, ponders at one point when he wonders if violence is humanity’s only true calling:
“It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and the horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.”
But realising “these feelings were too strange and overwhelming to hang on to”, he allows these thoughts, triggered by years of witnessing and experiencing the brutality of the Japanese against his men, to vanish and disappear into the ether, choosing to focus on the more uplifting things he has experienced such as the passionate embrace of the love of his life Amy, a woman who perversely could never truly be his, at least not in the way he wanted her to be.
It is a theme returned to again and again in Flanagan’s masterful, deeply moving work which talks about memory, and the choices we make in acknowledging and remembering the less palatable parts of our own selves as well the greater darkness that can fall over people, even those who see themselves as inherently good or worthy.
Terrible though the experiences of Evans and his men are as they struggle to survive malnutrition, systemised violence and indignities of the most base and dehumanising kind, each of them, at least who survive the war and they are sadly not many, make decisions about what they will and won’t talk about, pay tribute to, eulogise.
In a mark of how profoundly balanced and true to the universal experience of humanity the book strives to be, the author allows us insight into even the most bestial of the Japanese officers such as Colonel Kota, a man who sees a symmetry and honour in the way in which he beheads prisoners, a bloody act that is always accompanied by exquisitely-transcendent haiku poems.
The violence of man against man is no less confronting for these insights into the ideals, thoughts and emotions that underpin the behaviour of both sides in this most destructive of wars but they allow us to understand, at least in very small part, why people behave the way they do.
It never justifies their actions of course as accepting that dark things lurk within the soul of humanity is never the same as condoning it, and Flanagan’s poetic prose beautifully explores this in ways that will leave you simultaneously in awe and flinching at our masterful ability to be astonishingly honest and deeply deceitful, both to ourselves and those we come to know, for better or ill, in our lives.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as much as love letter to goodness and greatness in humanity as an admission of the horrors we also manifest – the power of words is another recurring theme throughout the book; something that Flanagan, whose writing is mesmerisingly beautiful even when he is talking about horrors without explanation, would know only too well – reaffirms that life is never black and white, good or bad but rather a murky, unsettling and at times greatly distressing mix of the two.
Much as we would like to think we are wholly indebted to the better angels of our nature, our propensity for war and brutality reminds us that we cannot escape “the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings”, and if there is one thing to be learned from this most masterfully and beautifully written of books, it is this one darkly unsettling but ultimately freeing truth.