Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North


According to Wikipedia, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a major work of the Japanese poet Basho, who is well known for writing haiku, but this work is called haibun, a work of prose that also includes some haiku. The Wikipedia article states that the introductory sentences are the most quoted and offers this translation:

 The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.

    Last year I spent wandering along the seacoast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all but deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.

 There are several ways in which this is significant in relation to the novel by Richard Flanagan, not least of which is his borrowing of the title. The book is a telling of many journeys, some in freedom, others under duress, lasting months and days… When I see the word “float” I think of Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans, who feels like he is floating through most of his life, some kind of impostor in a world that thinks of him as someone of importance, maybe even a hero. His thoughts and memories are often of those he has encountered who have died, often in terrible circumstances and suffering. He has no home… the only home he knows is that of the mind that he carries with himself, but his earthly anchors always seem to him somewhat contrived. The metaphor of the snail seems appropriate here.

He was alone in his marriage, he was alone with his children, he was alone in the operating theatre, he was alone on the numerous medical, sporting, charity and veterans’ bodies on which he sat, he was alone when addressing a meeting of a thousand POWs. There was around him an exhausted emptiness, an impenetrable void cloaked this most famously collegial man, as if he already lived in another place–forever unravelling and refurling a limitless dream or an unceasing nightmare, in was hard to know–from which he would never escape. He was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit.

Depression? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Nobody could survive the hardship of war camps and forced labor without some serious impact.

Through the decades following the war he felt is spirit sleeping, and though he tried hard to rouse it with the shocks and dangers of consecutive and sometimes concurrent adulteries, outbursts, and acts of pointless compassion and reckless surgery it did no good. It slumbered on. He admired reality, as a doctor, he preached it and tried to practise it. In truth, he doubted its existence. To have been part of a Pharaonic slave system that had as is apex a divine sun king led him to understand unreality as the greatest force in life. And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter–professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space–was vested with the greatest significance, and everything that did matter –pleasure, joy, friendship, love–was deemed somehow peripheral. It made for dullness mostly and weirdness generally.

Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon and army officer who was taken prisoner by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp in Thailand, where the POWs were made to work on the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway during World War II. Evans runs the camp “hospital” and attempts to treat increasingly sick and weak soldiers with limited means, frequently negotiating with Japanese officers to reduce the punish amount and difficulty of the work for his fellow prisoners who are barely nourished and live in horrendous conditions. After his liberation, he finds it hard to return to civilian life in Australia and consequently delays his return by continuing work for the military. When he does return, his fiancée expects him to slip back into his old life… which he seems to do outwardly, but as the quotes above demonstrate, feel an increasingly large splitting off between his private and public selves, leading to a pervasive sense of disconnection to the world that surrounds him.

This book is full of contrasts and the most striking of those is between the harshness of the treatment that Japanese officers impose on prisoners and the achingly beautiful poetry they like so much. This is a very rich book given its exploration of human experience in such extreme circumstances. I think it is highly deserving of the Man Booker Prize. For me, it was also an occasion to discover an aspect of World War II that I knew very little about, given that my knowledge of this period mostly comes from the depictions of the war through French literature.

As I finished this book on the metro on the way home, and I had some more time available to read, I open another book on my Kobo, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, and lo and behold I found myself back in World War II France…


Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Other things:

Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a great review:


5 responses »

  1. Lovely review Sylvie … I like your description of Dorrigo as floating, and your quote regarding life post-war feeling unreal is really well chosen too. This is a book that can be appreciated and explored from so many angles isn’t it?

    • Yes! And that’s what good literature is about for me. It makes you think, it generates powerful emotions, it makes you see the world differently. And I agree with you that this one is absolutely Worth a reread. When I was working on the review, I restarted from the beginning ans those first few pages did take on a different meaning.

      • I love to go back and read the first few pages when I finish a book. It can be very enlightening and sometimes provide you with that critical confirmation of the author’s intention or themes.

        BTW that’s pretty much a perfect description of good literature, to my mind anyhow.

  2. I really want to read this book . I heard him read from it and also soeak about it a little at the Man Booker ‘hustings’ earlier this year. He impressed me deeply and i did think at the time that it was a close run thing between him and Ali Smith , which we now know it was! An Aussie friend tells me he is a brilliant writer and partic recommended The Sound Of One Hand Clapping , which i have now bought fir my son for Xmas ! Happy reading !

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