From the slurry that are my earliest memories there is a night of pluvial rain out into which my father went. On the road below our house a taxi had come to some form of grief. I remember looking out a window and seeing static car lights. My father came back and reported it was his friend, an old army mate, now cabbie – Ray. In response to my mother’s query, he reported that his pal would be okay – given a little time. I knew Ray had been ‘on the Railway’ during the war, without knowing exactly what that meant – only that he and Dad discussed it over beers. It seems to me that in today’s parlance he would have had some form of ‘melt down’ and parked by our house; he was coming to someone who ‘understood’ – my father.
It wasn’t till later in life that I came to know what being ‘on the Railway’ meant. To me the railway, in those earlier years, was the one running by the foreshore of our Tasmanian town and back then, in the days of steam, one actually bearing trains carrying passengers hither and thither. Later I knew ‘the Railway’ was another line far away in the jungles of Asia, the horrors of the building of which were linked to the game-changing conflict that figured so hugely in the life of both my old man and Ray. Nothing of’ ‘the Railway’ ever featured in my father’s stories, told to me perched on his knee – that wasn’t part of his war- as were the battles in Palestine and the Western Desert. His yarns were highly sanitised for juvenile consumption. There is, however, nothing sanitised in ‘The Narrow Road to the True North’.
As I progressed through my pre to mid-teens I became fixated on those ‘great adventures’ – World Wars 1 and 11. There was ‘Combat’ on the tele, with our dominant allies, the GIs, always coming out ahead of those foul, deviant ‘Krauts’. Through another source, the public library, I discovered how foul those Germans were – though not particularly those on the front line. I saw pictures in books of concentrations camps, pictures that gave me the horrors. These did not feature in any of my Dad’s stories either. It was then I started to discover the true nature of war. It had little of the American good guys coming to the world’s rescue with some micro-assistance from Aussie diggers. It was a hell – one only had to read of Stalingrad or Iwo Jima to know that.
In recent days I have attended the launch by Tim Winton of his new tome ‘Eyrie’. The great man will no doubt be a contender for the Miles Franklin with it, but during his talk he genuflected to Richard Flanagan, who, with ‘The Narrow Road…’, will no doubt be his major competitor. He used the M word to describe it – Masterpiece. That word came to the lips of Jennifer Byrne on the ‘First Tuesday Book Club’ as well. Her panelist, the divine Marieke Hardy, informed us that, at another launch, when she went to congratulate Flanagan on the book, all she could do was cry in his presence so deeply was she moved by what she had read. The first act she did on completing the novel was to ring her own father.
Could White in his pomp; Kenneally, Alex Miller or even Winton himself produce the burnished word-smithery this author uses in this book? The Tasmanian has honed the words on his pages to a sheen so as to have his desired effect on the reader. They are mesmerising; they are simply unputdownable. His mastery of the vernacular entraps from the get-go and never lets up until the last page is done with. One takes a deep breath as Flanagan beautifully, if not quite happily, ties up the loose ends, then one simply wants to start from the beginning again. There is a symmetry to the whole opus as Flanagan pulls us away from the fecund, oozing passages of horror on ‘the Railway’, then immerses the reader in it yet again.
I knew from his previous offerings, such as ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ and the exquisite ‘Wanting’, that this writer has the promise of literary greatness about him, but ‘The Road to the Deep North’ raises him to another level. It seems all before for him has been moving to this – this being reportedly twelve years in the making. It will become a seminal Australian epic.
Two aspects of the book did surprise. I knew from the pre-publicity that Flanagan was not going to shirk from the utter vileness of the under-resourced, impossible task that befell the slave labourers on the Burma Railway. Its descriptions of the squalid conditions and Japanese cruelty were a test for me – a good friend couldn’t cope and had to skip those pages. I made it through – but it wasn’t pretty. Even in these, though, there is a beauty in the ‘mateship’ between the men – a notion that has been somewhat disrespected in recent times. Surely not now after this book. Of course, I was moved to tears by his portrayal of the privations in the middle sections of the book – it was no surprise to me that I would be. I was forewarned that Flanagan presents the other side as well – in some cases, if not entirely sympathetically, at least there is an understanding there. There is a Japanese – and a touch of Korean – perspective. In doing so – does he makes it easier to forgive?
What I didn’t expect was the sheer readability of the thing. It draws the reader in deep – normal pre-occupations are put aside whilst one devours it. The mind never wanders, causing a reread of paragraphs, one is so immersed. Even though it is not a linear narrative, Flanagan has somehow made it all so seamless. There is real power in the story, not just of the abominations of the jungle camps, but in the parallel magnetism of the affair that is also at the heart of this great Australian novel. As the main protagonist struggles to abide, let alone like, himself, women are drawn to him in the same way as his men were on ‘the Railway’ A novel of this magnitude would usually take me a couple of weeks to complete what with all the other enjoyable attractions of retirement – this, though, took precedence and I flew through it in a couple of sittings.
I went to see a film very early in the year called ‘Armour’ – a story of a hard singular death. That movie has retained a hold on me, not an entirely pleasant one either. I thought there could be no more pitiful going than that old woman’s on that movie screen that night. Of course, there are multiple deaths in ‘The Narrow Road…’ The double one, though, of Darky Gardiner would seemingly be so heart/gut wrenchingly that it would be beyond adjectives – yet Flanagan seems to find them to do justice to the brutality of it. Jack Rainbow’s demise under the surgeon’s knife is almost as potent, if that’s the right word? Then there’s the Japanese fixation on beheading – how the author describes the tantric of it in the mind of one of his Asian characters in particular makes the skin crawl. It is something seemingly beyond human understanding – yet Flanagan somehow makes it comprehensible.
The character whose war provides the fulcrum for the tale survives and presumably is an amalgam of Arch, the author’s own remarkable father, a former ‘slave’; as well as the legendary Weary Dunlop. That he had to make it through another test, albeit a briefer one, was also a surprise to me. It was yet another black periods of time in my island’s dark history – the ’67 bushfires. These are indelibly etched into the minds of all Tasmanians of my vintage when the hills around where I am sitting now scribing this piece were in the grip of dry-heated, gale driven hellfires. Over sixty lives were lost. It was another Hades altogether that the by now the living legend had to summon the strength to come to terms with.
It’s the names – the names of his characters that truly, truly grabbed as well – the range of wonderful appellations were Dickensian in their aptness – Sheephead Morton; Jimmy Bigelow; Rooster MacNiece; Bonox Baker; the priceless Gallipoli von Kessler. Does a woman’s name role off the tongue more sweetly than Amy Mulvaney. No wonder she dominated the great man’s mind with a nomenclature like that! She was his uncle’s wife; his unquenchable passion, despite a more than suitable, if long suffering, wife in Ella.
And finally, is Dorrigo Evans the greatest Australian literary creation this century?
Morag Fraser on Flanagan’s opus = http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/barometer-of-torment-20131010-2v97i.html