The Narrow Road to the Deep North – overview
The Narrow Road to the Deep North was described by the Chair of Judges of the Man Booker Prize as a ‘masterpiece’, and having now read it I would have to agree. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. There are so many layers in here that a full deconstruction and analysis would probably be as long as the book itself – my copy comes in at 467 pages, so a fairly long book.
The book deals with what are described as the ‘two great themes from the origin of literature… love and war’. For me the war thread is much more interesting than the love thread, but I’ll cover both here.
The book follows the fortunes of a young Australian doctor, Dorrigo, who is in a stable but dull relationship with a girl that ticks all of the boxes of expectation – good prospects, good family, good looks. By chance encounter, he becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman in Adelaide. Through further chance he meets her again, and from there starts an affair just before heading off to war. Which girl will he return to? The one he’s expected to marry, or the one he proposed to, seemingly on the spur of the moment?
In following Dorrigo’s relationships we are asked to consider the importance of love in a relationship – in an echo of the East vs West theme of the book, we’re asked if compatibility is more important than love. Does love have to be public to be truly love? What do we think of a serial cheater? And in the denouement of the love thread, would you acknowledge your ex after 20-30 years apart if you saw them in the street with children in tow?
After Dorrigo heads to war, he, along with 1/5th of the Australian armed forces finds himself a prisoner of the Japanese. He is assigned to a team of 1,000 Australians tasked with building a railway through Siam to Burma. Over time he is elevated to leadership of the rapidly diminishing Australian force.
Why did the Japanese invade Asia? Why were Australians trying to stop them? Why were the Japanese trying to build a railway from Siam to Burma? Why were they treating prisoners of war as slave labour?
Why did the Japanese invade Asia?
The political explanation for the invasion was that the Japanese Emperor wanted to liberate Asia from European domination and to establish an Asian empire run by Asians along Asian lines. Underneath this explanation was a need for Japan to follow the imperialist trail blazed by Britain and France in sourcing raw materials and markets overseas to break the constraints on the growth of her economy.
Individual Japanese soldiers were motivated to fight due to the extremely toxic culture they had grown up in. The Japanese Emperor at the time still claimed divine status, and doing the Emperor’s will was inculcated into Japanese people as their primary purpose for being – this backed up with the threat of execution if the Emperor’s will was not done.
Why were the Australians trying to stop Japan?
As one of the Australian characters in the book asks, at an earlier stage in their campaign, before being captured.. ‘Explain to me.. why we machine-gun waves of black Africans fighting for the French who are equally intent on killing us, Australians flighting for the English in the Middle East?’
A great question! Why were the British fighting the Japanese? Primarily to defend their economic interests in Asia, and particularly to defend India. Why were Australians helping to defend British interests in Asia? Because Australia at the time was considered part of the British Commonwealth – almost still part of the Empire – and as such was expected to support Britain in defending her economic interests. As one of the British military personnel states: ‘The division of the British Empire into arbitrary nationalities was a fiction. From Oxford to Oodnadatta they were one people.’
Why did individual Australians join up to fight? The rhetoric at the time promoted the idea of fighting for freedom, the idea being that the territories the Japanese were trying to control were free, presumably in the sense of being political democracies, and that the Japanese were seeking to remove this freedom.
Why were the Japanese trying to build a railway line from Siam to Burma?
Strategically the Japanese wanted to cut off the allied supply chain to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, and to pave the way for their intended invasion of India through Burma. On top of this was a symbolic purpose to establish Japanese superiority over the Europeans, who had previously said that building such a railway would be near-impossible and would take a long period of time. As one of the Japanese characters in the book states: ’..’this railway is the great epoch-making construction of our century. Without European machinery, within a time considered extraordinary, we will build what the Europeans said it was not possible to build over many years. The railway is the moment when we and our outlook become the new drivers of world progress.’ Compare this to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, or to the Soviet commitment to the space race.
Why were the Japanese using Australian prisoners of war as slave labour?
None of the other combatants in the Second World War did this. Why were the Japanese different? The Japanese did not sign the Geneva Convention, although did, in 1942 agree to abide by it – which clearly didn’t happen in the case of these Australian POWs. In another example of pre-war and wartime Japan’s toxic culture, Japan’s Field Service Code stated that captured Japanese officers were to kill themselves. This protected the Japanese from informers who might trade military secrets for leniency, and also encouraged them to think of Prisoners of War as men with no honour. ‘A no man’. Couple this with the Japanese sense of superiority and their, at this time, martial culture and it wasn’t a big leap for the Japanese responsible for the POWs being able to think of Prisoners of War as slave labour – essentially just raw materials for building the railway.
Despite the cultural programme of the occupying Americans after the end of the Second World War, support for this martial and superior culture persisted amongst some strains of Japanese society, as evidenced by Yukio Mishima‘s attempted coup aimed at restoring some aspects of this culture to a Japan seen to have been neutered and turned into a nation of flower arrangers.
Even within the Japanese military itself, physical punishment was very common for any sort of perceived misdemeanour or performance issue. When faced with a slave labour force, the Japanese showed immense cruelty – beatings were common, and men were required to work extremely long hours in atrocious conditions even when sick and starving.
During the war, the characters in the book largely justified their actions as necessary in order to satisfy the Emperor’s will for the railway, and to avoid the personal consequences of returning to Japan without having satisfied the Emperor’s will. After the war, when many of the culprits were arrested as war criminals we hear one of the characters defend his killing one of the Australians by beating him to death essentially by claiming that he would have died anyway through the circumstances he was in, which were no responsibility of his. It wasn’t his fault that there was no food or medicine, and that there was malaria and cholera. ‘They were skin and bone, and they’d just give up while they were working and die there on the railway. They’d die walking to work and they’d die walking back from work. They’d die sleeping, they die waiting for food. Sometimes they’d die when you beat them’.
Another character, who escaped being dealt with as a war criminal, persuaded himself that he was a good person. He ‘felt in the deepest part of his being that he, like the Japanese people, was an honourable, good man falsely accused. A victim…’
How did the Australians respond?
Initially the Australians responded as other POWs – they tried to make the best of a bad situation, put on performances and tried to keep their spirits up by whistling and singing. As hunger and disease came to dominate their lives, the focus shifting to doing whatever needed to be done to survive each day. They looked after each other when they could – they lied and stole when they thought they needed to to survive.
Dorrigo, the principal character in the book, having found himself thrust into a leadership position, found himself playing a role, acting how he thought the men would expect their leader to act, no matter how unnatural and uncomfortable this was for him.
What was the point?
If the railway had survived and the Japanese had won the war, the expectation of the characters in the book is that the railway would have been seen as a great achievement of a great race – somewhat akin to how the pyramids reflect on the Egyptian Pharaohs. The thousands or hundreds of thousands of slave that died in their construction would be forgotten. Even though the Japanese lost the war and the railway was soon reclaimed by jungle and the local population, the Japanese war shrine in Yasukuni, Tokyo, makes no mention of the dead, but honours over 1,000 Japanese executed after the war as war criminals.
As it is, many Australians died and many more were treated atrociously. And there is no railway to show it. I guess this book becomes the memorial for them.
Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the best book I’ve read in an age. The writing is powerful, the story is an interesting one that needed to be told, and the plot and characters cover so many interesting topics that the above barely scratched the surface. 10/10 from me.
Have you read the book? What did you think? Do you agree with my assessment?