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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The complexity and the intelligence of Narrow Road to the Deep North

Some of the POW camp scenes in Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North are almost unbearable to read, so precise, visceral, documentary - accounts of forced labor, beatings, hospital treatment and surgery under the most primitive and unsanitary conditions - but I have to say that the book is totally engaging and that's in part because it's not an unrelenting chronicle of horrors and abuse but a smart and sensitive novel with surprising twists and unusual character development. A key example is that we see one of the most sadistic prison guards, known to the Australian prisoners only as the Goanna, beating a severely ill prisoner literally to death - but then Flanagan has the courage and the creative ability to show us, in a later chapter, exactly who the Goanna is - we see him not only from the perspective of the prisoners who of course loathe and fear him but later from his own perspective - we see his feelings of inferiority and obeisance, as a Korean serving in the Japanese army and we see his puzzlement at the hatred the prisoners express toward him, as he endured random beatings on his own as he entered the Japanese service; isn't this what's expected of a soldier?, he wonders. When we meet him on his own terms, in a later section of the novel, he's living in Occupied Japan amid the rubble of buildings and he learns that he's wanted as a war criminal; he kills an American soldier and threatens a "pan pan" girl to steal $50 of the soldier's money, with which he buys a false identity and heads north. There are so many elements to this novel, as noted yesterday - the childhood in Tasmania of the central character, Dorrigo Evans, the prewar years of his high romance with the illicit Amy, the postwar years in Occupied Japan, and his later years in London - but it all centers on the years of captivity in the Thai jungle, building the doomed railroad under Japanese command, a time when Dorrigo showed heroic qualities, though he can never accept the role of hero because of his constant self-doubt and his acknowledged serial infidelity. There are no obvious, two-dimensional characters in their novel - each is complex, even ambiguous, in his (and sometimes her) own way.

Have to make correction here: it was the leader of the Japanese division that ran the POW camp, Nokomura, who steals the $ and gets a fake ID and heads north (echoing the title?) - a scheming bastard right to the end; we also meet the Korean thug Goanna, and see his sorrowful perspective, in Occupied Japan, but he's imprisoned and awaiting a death sentence and angry that he's not receiving his military pay of 50 yen. 

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