After reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, I learned, among other things, that haiku is not about fitting 17 syllables into three lines, 5-7-5, but about fitting even more meaning into even fewer syllables. Here are some examples from Flanagan’s book:
Mother, they write poems. Paul Celan
of the peony.
A world of pain –
if the cherry blossoms,
No attribution given
The point of the book is that life is, and there is simply nothing more to say. So, logically, I should just stop here, but I’m not yet mistress of the short form.
Flanagan’s story covers a time span between the main character, Dorrigo Evans’s childhood to the moment around 80 years later when one of the Japanese characters dies, yet the reader is consistently oriented as to place and time. Any writer and the discerning reader will admire the discipline and clarity of his control of time and context.
All characters present at the Japanese prison camp are dazed and disoriented for the rest of their lives by a disconnection from all they had thought important. Years after the war, “[Evans] admired reality, as a doctor, he preached it and tried to practice it. In truth, he doubted its existence. To have been part of a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king led him to understand unreality as the greatest force in life.” The bugler among his troops, Jimmy Bigelow, drifts to a different space. “In his old age he could honestly say he could recall no acts of violence…he could remember none of his time as a POW at all… of that experience nothing remained. What did was an irrevocable idea of human goodness, as undeniable as it was beautiful. At the age of ninety-four he was finally a free man.” The Japanese protagonists evolve similarly.
The civilians who have not known the deprivation and humiliation of the “Pharaonic slave system” trudge along believing that the things they are doing are important; thus, Flanagan suggests that great deprivation and humiliation are positive influences in peoples’ lives, making them able to see beauty and freedom that civilians never sense.
Flanagan paints his characters and his themes in the sure strokes of a master impressionist: a red flower seen through motes of dust in the sunlight, the crooked smile, the man who stands on a stump singing a song as the bedraggled skeletons of prisoners make their way back to their so-called dinner and a night’s sleep on a lice-infested cot. Using another brush stroke, both the Japanese commander and the Australian commander, who have no contact with each other after the war, sit uncomfortably in overstuffed armchairs as they reconvene years later with men (or their families) who had served under them. Having sailed so close to death for so long during the war, they each find it impossible to relax in this symbol of civilian comfort.
I have never read a book where so few strokes served to define characters, and they pulse in and out of mind and story as the book progresses. Dorrigo Evans’s height, for example, defines him, and the reader sees how this height bestows on him a youthful sexual magnetism, authority in wartime, and finally an elegance which enhances his public life after the war.
The only quibble I have with the book is that in order to tie up loose ends in the plot, Flanagan uses some arbitrary fixes which are not in harmony with the rest of the book. I don’t want to give them away, but they occur at the very end of the book. I forgive him. God, the man can’t be perfect. He’s still young. Maybe his next book will be even more perfect.
Some of the greatest literature tells us that in the end nothing is real, and no one will remember anyway. Most of us would say that we believe in reality, but King Lear, Hamlet, and the great Vietnam war novel Matterhorn (and other great literature) say that in the end there is nothing and no one remembers, and we have deemed them masterpieces.
If no person or feat is forever, then the worst thing a person can do is to blindly believe, because each other and this moment is all we will ever have, and blind belief makes us forget that. The Emperor has decreed it, the Pope has decreed it, the Koran or the Flag has decreed it and thus are people boiled in oil, drawn and quartered, worked to death in prison camps, starved, tortured, beheaded, crucified, incarcerated, and burnt at the stake.
For the Japanese, the lines from the ancient poem Umi Yukaba, drove them to unspeakable acts which only their blind belief made possible:
We die by the side of our Emperor,
We never look back.
This book suggests that if any of us were put under the kind of duress that the characters in The Narrow Road to the Deep North suffer, we would each learn that all we have is each other. It seems to be a lesson we can’t learn without extreme suffering, but we can try to learn vicariously. In the meantime we have the rippling beauty of prose, the tip-of-the-iceberg profundity of poetry, and the sublime moment of the Last Post played on a battered trumpet by lips and tongue so swollen and painful that it is only barely possible to create sound.
Flanagan explains why we cannot learn this simple lesson in his description of Dorrigo Evans’s return to civilian life in Australia: “…the army [was] no longer the jaunt it had been with its defeats and victories and the living – the living! – constantly tearing anything established into ribbons, melting everything solid into air. Wealth, fame, success, adulation – all that came later seemed only to compound the sense of meaninglessness he was to find in civilian life. He could never admit to himself that it was death that had given his life meaning.” These words reminded me of my friend George, a Vietnam veteran with whom I rode the bus into New York city dozens of times in the 1980s. Even with medication, George was finding life impossible to manage. Somehow the privacy of the back of the bus (he never sat where someone could sit behind him) and the relative anonymity of our conversations as commuters freed him to speak. He confessed to having been sent home before his mandatory year in Vietnam was up because he had become, “a killing machine.” Said he, “I never felt so alive.”
Perhaps it is only human males who have been so dangerously wired. Only recently have we begun to collect the experiences of female war veterans who have struggled to readjust to what Flanagan calls “civilian life,” that is, a life where we do our work, raise our families, have our friends, and hope to die with dignity. Yet many civilian women yoked to abusive men have gone to sleep every night no more sure that they would wake up in the morning than are soldiers in their foxholes. Wars are expected to end some day, but women are chained to these men indefinitely because leaving them could bring worse harm to themselves or to their children.
I would love to write the book which follows a woman through such a life of terror into “civilian life.” Perhaps alternative meaning can be found by women who are finally free to raise their children without the threat of assault, humiliation, or death.
Do slaves (and they say there are still plenty of them in today’s world) find “civilian” life intolerable after suffering pain and humiliation equivalent to a POW’s?
Maybe the tangle of nationalism, religious conviction, testosterone, and the hierarchy of power in the modern state have conspired to make war the fatal flaw in the human race. Flanagan writes that war teaches us that all we have is each other in this moment. Civilian life teaches the opposite — that we are constantly dependent on each other as we strive to build something bigger than ourselves – a business, a family or a government.
Flanagan is in the exalted company of fine writers of prose and poetry, and singers of haunting folk songs like And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, or Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye, who have been trying forever to tell us that war has no place in healthy human life. If global warming doesn’t kill us, nuclear holocaust or another as yet unimagined form of war could well be the final bane of humanity. Flanagan does his best to keep that from happening. Or maybe he thinks that life just is, or isn’t.