Personhood is complicated. There is the person we present to our family, who might be the same as the person we present to our friends, who is definitely no the person we present to our bosses. Behind all those people is the person we are to ourselves. But what if, that person underneath hates themselves? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, one might think that surviving a Japanese POW camp in the Thai jungle would be conflict enough. Instead, many of the characters torment themselves with wondering if they’re good or bad people. This novel richly deserves all the accolades it has won because it provides so much food for thought about who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are.
Everyone thinks Dorrigo Evans is a hero, except Dorrigo himself. He doesn’t like who he is. He’s not affectionate with his children. He cheats on his wife. He’s not a brilliant surgeon. But everyone outside his family considers him a hero because he helped his men when they were kept in a Japanese POW camp for years. Dorrigo was the ranking officer and only qualified doctor. In harrowing circumstances, he tried to keep as many of his men alive for as long as possible. Dorrigo tortures himself by seeking happiness at the same time he feels he doesn’t deserve it.
Meanwhile, Dorrigo is contrasted with two of his guards. There is the Japanese colonel who ordered the men to work without rest, food, or medicine while ordering beatings for real and imagined faults. Yet, after the war, Nakamura tells himself over and over that he was a devoted subject of the Emperor, who only did what was necessary for his country. Then there is the Korean guard who carried out Nakamura’s sadistic orders. This guard does not lie to himself, as such. Instead, Choi Sang-min tells himself:
For when he was a guard, he lived like an animal, he behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be. (290*)
It’s hard to say who is right, if anyone is actually right. By the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I think we could say that all versions of a person are real. The problems arise when those versions are out of harmony with each other.
The tension between who these men think they are and who they present to the rest of the world is brilliantly illustrated by Dorrigo and Nakamura’s love of poetry. Throughout his life, Dorrigo reads and recites poetry. The words help him express, at least to himself, his complicated emotional life. Nakamura, on the other hand, uses poetry to reassure himself that he is not a barbarian. In addition to this use of poetry, the haiku at the beginning of each section serve as knotty kōan to think about while we chew over the book and its subtext. They don’t immediately make sense but, once I passed each section, the haiku meaning unfolded so that I could feel a bit of the love of poetry Dorrigo and Nakamura have. And, if I’m honest with myself in a way neither of these characters are, understanding the haiku makes me feel very smart.
I finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday and I’m still thinking about it. Like all great books, it has so much to say that I’m not done with it even though I’ve finished the last page. This book covers the nature of heroism, the will to survive, the banality of life after great hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, the varieties of love, and so much more. This book pummeled me in the best way. This review barely scratches the surface of the book. I want to recommend it to a ton of readers so that I have someone to share my pummeling with.
* Quote is from the 2013 trade paperback by Vintage International.