Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan

There are many things that keep bringing me back to movies and books on World War II. I find it fascinating how almost every country of note got sucked into the melee. It boggles the mind how fast the conflict escalated and it boggles even more how fast the wounds healed. To me the war is confirmation that this thing we call ‘civilization’ is but a thin veneer.

When I think about World War II the European and the pacific theaters come to mind. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a reminder of just how far the conflict really spread and how many actors it forced in. Much of the story is set in Siam where the Japanese exploited thousands of Australian POWs to build a railway from Singapore to Burma (Think Bridge on the River Kwai). The protagonist is a surgeon in one such camp who becomes the leader of the POWs and is witness to the atrocities in the camps. Violence, both commissioned by the Japanese and that which is incidental. There’s one scene in which gangrene sets in an already amputated leg of a prisoner, and the doctor has to saw off the leg all the way to the hip in the grimiest of conditions. He struggles hard to suture an artery to stop the bleeding and at the end of a longish struggle finally manages it, only to realise that the patient has already died on the makeshift bamboo bed. I found those parts, where the violence is so banal, the most heartrending.

There’s a love story that runs in the background (or foreground, depends on who you ask) which I didn’t fancy much, but that’s mostly because I’ve lost the enzymes to digest romance in literature. The parts set in the war are truly gripping and soul-crushing. The best war literature gets into what it means to be human both as oppressor and as victim, and I thought this book scores really high there. There’s one passage where the doctor asks one of his compatriots “You still believe in God” and the inmate says “Dunno colonel, It’s human beings I’m starting to wonder about.”

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