Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Staggeringly good. I read this a couple weeks ago, and it left me emotionally a good way. I deliberately went on to read a couple things I thought would be lesser because I didn't want to put anything else to the challenge of having to live up to the experience.

The novel refers often to Don Quixote (and to Tennyson's "Ulysses" and some of Catullus's work -- all done masterfully), but I'm tempted to call this the Australian War and Peace. It's canvas is so large -- essentially a half century of history seen from both the Australian and Japanese perspectives -- and its characters so fully realized, that I don't think that's an insult to either work. This really is world literature on a high scale. I want to look at other of his work, but on the strength of this one, I think he's a legitimate Nobel candidate.

I don't want to spoil much of this, but I think it's worth noting that "the narrow road" is both the railroad that the prisoners of war have to labor (and die) upon, and also a metaphor for the difficulty of finding fulfillment even in a long and generally fortunate life. (The reference comes from Basho, as I recall.) In each case, what's clear is the labor rather than the goal. As a consequence, the novel is almost overwhelming in its capacity to deliver the details of that labor as the characters experience it alongside the perspective that comes only through seeing an entire life in a glance.

There are too many stunning scenes to try to list them all, but the one in which Dorrigo Evans has to amputate a man's leg is as powerful as anything I can recall reading this decade. (If it compares to anything, it's the relentless catalogue of violence in Roberto Bolano's 2666, but that's only in effect -- where you can't quite ignore the physical violence of the scene but you also can't help recognizing the larger human experience behind it.) That's just the tip of the iceberg, though, and I don't recall a single unimpressive scene in the whole book.

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