Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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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…

References

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oku_no_Hosomichi

Other things:

Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a great review: http://whisperinggums.com/2014/10/05/richard-flanagan-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-review/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10940118/The-Narrow-Road-to-the-Deep-North-by-Richard-Flanagan-review-graceful-and-unfathomable.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/review-the-narrow-road-in-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/2014/08/19/0baeb134-232a-11e4-8593-da634b334390_story.html

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/11/09/books/book-reviews/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north/#.VJJNGSvF-8I

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Thursday Night Ramblings: Long Book Titles Must Be In Vogue Or Something

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This is the time of the year where I am just itching to buy more books (yes, more than I do usually). It’s literary prize season. So I have been looking at what is getting some attention out there and I am ready to take on new authors and do more exploration of contemporary fiction. Here is what I have picked up based on long lists or short lists as the case may be…

Man Booker Prize:

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (7)

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (6)

National Book Award:

Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See (6)

Richard Power, Orfeo (1)

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2)

Scotiabank Giller Prize:

Padma Viswnathan, The Everafter of Ashwin Rao (5)

Shani Mootoo, Moving Forwards Sideways Like a Crab (6)

Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (6)

So the mode is 6 (Stat 101 anyone?); I was too lazily to compute the average. The median is 6 as well. I thought that was in interesting factoid.

I also stocked up on some highly touted offerings of the French “rentrée littéraire”, which all happen to be far more economical title-wise:

Emmanuel Carrère, Le royaume

David Foenkinos, Charlotte

Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, L’île du Pont Némo

This collection promises some good times, in addition to my other quirky choices for no good reason like the authors I systematically read, the attractive design or cover art, the cute author, or the promise of a really dismal dystopia.

Yann Martel, Life of Piscine Molitor Patel

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We’ve had this book on a bookshelf for many years. My husband liked it but wasn’t wowed and I had a bad image of it due to the plagiarism accusation that came out after Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. When the movie came out last year we did go see it and I enjoyed it. It also made me curious about the book, so in the past week I finally got around to reading it.

I just couldn’t put it down. I liked the plot. I liked the description of life in India. Since I had travelled a bit in India, I could really picture that part. I liked the reflections on family life, religion, survival, and particular, fear.

 
Chapter 56 is a 2-page chapter where the narrator explores the nature of fear. Fear defeats reason, takes over your body, robs you of your senses, makes you take rash decisions, and triumphs over hope and trust. Fear, even when you think you have overcome it, hides and comes back to rot everything.

 
What the story shows us is that fear can be ultimately overcome, which much effort and suffering, and one can live life to the fullest.

For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face to your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. (p. 179)

Now I’d like to see the movie again to compare to the book.

 
Reference:
Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Vintage Canada, 2001.

Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending

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I would rather have called this book The Sense of Many Endings. It tells the story of Tony Webster, an unremarkable retired man who is rethinking some of the major events in his life: school, school friends, girlfriends, marriage, etc. The story is punctuated by many endings: two suicides, relationships that fizzle out and a divorce. There are two pivotal relationships in Tony’s life: a former girlfriend called Veronica and a former school friend called Adrian who ends up with Veronica but commits suicide. Those would remain as memories to puzzle over were it not for one strange happening: Many years later, Veronica’s mother dies and wills Adrian’s diary to Tony as well as a non-trivial amount of money. What does this all mean? As Veronica is in possession of the diary and refuses to turn it over, he feels compelled to contact her again. This leads to painful confrontations between his memories and understandings of his past actions and Veronica’s interpretations (she keeps telling Tony that he never got it). Where does the truth lie? Or is it just a matter of what interpretation do you adopt so that you can live with yourself? If you are shaken enough, it may mean the end of a sense of self, your own understanding of who you are… And hand-cut chips are fat chips.

 Reference:

Barnes, Julian, The Sense of an Ending, Random House, 2011.