Hours before his latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Richard Flanagan read at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library. University Book Store was there. After the reading, during the Q&A, Flanagan lamented the dearth of a distinctly Australian literary culture in the 1970s when he was growing up. Studying British and American works exclusively, he said, reinforced a colonized mindset. “You felt less than,” he explained, bringing to mind similar statements that writers in ethnic or racial minorities have made about the literary “canon” in U.S. schools. How wonderful for Flanagan–and Australia–is the Man Booker nomination!
A prescient work twelve years in the writing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North reflects an historiographical sea change that is bringing to light the full extent of Japanese war crimes, debunking the notion of the heroic soldier in World War II, and refuting the notion that Americans won the war all by ourselves. In searing, excruciating detail, Narrow Road animates the physical, emotional, and spiritual dehumanization wrought on the Thai-Burma death railway.
The book’s eponymous title is an homage to a haibun by the Japanese monk and poet Matsuo Basho* (1644 – 1694); the text, to Flanagan’s father, Archie, who fought for Australia and was captured and enslaved on the railway. “For prisoner san byaku san jū go (335),“ the dedication says.
This is not a book to read casually–or remotely close to bed time. In a devastating postwar scene that lingers in my mind, a Japanese veteran with blood on his hands reveals a leading philanthropist and physician as having directed research in “vivisection and many other things. Testing biological weapons on prisoners . . .
“. . . Today,” the veteran continues, “Mr. Naito is a well-respected figure. And why? Because neither our government nor the Americans want to dig up the past. The Americans are interested in our biological warfare work; it helps them prepare for war against the Soviets. We tested these weapons on the Chinese; they want to use them on the Koreans. I mean, you got hanged if you were unlucky or unimportant. Or Korean. But the Americans want to do business now.”
We are all connected.
* Sam Hamil, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, made a wonderful translation of Basho’s poem.