Since 1969, the Man Booker Prize has been awarded annually for the best original novel "written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author." (The 2014 prize created some controversy because, for the first time, American authors were included in the long list and short list.) The prize includes an award of £50,000, making it one of the richest literary prizes.
I have made it a goal to read the Booker Prize winners over the past several years, and when this year's winner was announced, I was halfway through Flanagan's novel, having chosen it from the shortlisted novels because of its title, which is taken from a classic travel book by the Japanese poet Basho.
Flanagan’s book is dedicated “To Prisoner 335” — his father Archie, who was a POW during World War II and who, like the POWs in the novel, worked on the "Death Railway" in Burma. Archie survived the war and died at the age of 98, the day Flanagan finished writing his novel.
The setup. There are two stories running through Flanagan's novel, both united by a common character, the Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans. One story involves a group of Australian POWs forced to help build a railroad through the Burmese jungle during World War II; Evans served as the physician and ranking officer for the POW camp. The second involves an affair that Evans had with his uncle's wife prior to being sent off to war. Both events haunt Evans throughout the novel.
You’ll like the book if ...
- You agree with General Grant that war is hell. Flanagan's portrayal of the conditions of the POW camp in Burma recounts in unrelenting detail the beatings that the men suffer at the hands of their captors, the starvation, the cholera, the ulcers, the gangrene, the constant rain and mud, and the other seemingly unending tortures that are visited upon the POWs. Some 13,000 POWs died trying to build the railway, and Flanagan portrays with great power what his narrator calls "the suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many."
- You admire sparse, stark writing. Flanagan writes in a quiet, straightforward style that does not flinch in detailing the horrors of the war. His descriptions of the other parts of Flanagan's life — his dull, kind-hearted wife; his guilt over the affair with his uncle's wife; his womanizing after the war — are also straightforward and almost emotionless, reflecting Evans's sense of alienation. There is a haiku-like simplicity to his writing.
- You appreciate multiple points of view. Both during and after the war, Flanagan shifts from the viewpoint of Dorrigo Evans, the main narrator of the novel, into the minds of various Japanese and Korean guards, helping us see the war from their point of view, as they "used [their] powers for the sake of the Empire and the Emperor."
- You believe in heroes. There are no heroes in this novel. After the war, Evans becomes celebrated following a documentary about his work in the camps, but he is not a particularly admirable individual — he is a poor doctor whose experiments in treating colon cancer don't work; he cheats on his wife; he is an inattentive father. As Evans himself speculates, "It seemed to him that the world simply allowed for some things and punished others, that there was neither reason nor explanation, neither justice nor hope."
- You're squeamish. Flanagan's descriptions of the dying men and the conditions of the POW camp may be too graphic for many readers. Readers who will be unsettled by men whose skin is peeling off their bodies, men who are covered with sores, men who are starved and thin beyond belief, or men who are "a muddy bundle of broken sticks" should look elsewhere.
Appeal factors. Character is the primary appeal factor of the novel, which is replete with well constructed, complex characters like Dorrigo Evans; Darky Gardiner, who is the group's optimist but who is brutally beaten when some of his men hide from work; Nakamura, Japan's commander of the railway camp, who imagines himself covered with jungle ticks and who is addicted to methamphetamine; Rabbit Hendricks, who makes sketches and drawings of camp life; Rooster MacNeice, who passes the time by memorizing Hitler's Mein Kampf; Tiny Middleton, whose muscular body finally betrays him. Flanagan follows many of the characters after the war, when some "died off quickly, strangely, in car crashes and suicides and creeping diseases."
- "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (both the 1957 Academy Award winning David Lean film and the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle) is also about Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma "Death Railway" during World War II. Many people have criticized the depictions of conditions in the POW camp in the film and the book as naive, and they certainly pale in comparison with the horrendous, putrid desolation of Flanagan's novel. Nevertheless, some readers may want a different perspective.
- Other memoirs of life and death during the railway's construction — including John Coast’s chilling Railroad of Death and H. Robert Charles’s remarkable Last Man Out: Surviving the Burma-Thailand Death Railway — may be of interest to readers who want more information about this aspect of World War II.
- Washington Post critic Ron Charles said that "Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this — all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation," and it's an apt comparison. McCarthy's stark prose in The Road is similar in style to Flanagan in this novel.
- Flanagan's other novels may also be of interest. In Death of a River Guide, a river guide drowns and, while he dies, reflects of his life and his family's past. In Gould's Book of Fish, the daily torments of a 19th-century Tasmanian prison colony are seen through the eyes of a convict who is kept in a partially submerged cage.
- Flanagan's novel is filled with references to the Japanese poetry genre haiku and takes its title from Japanese poet Matsu Basho’s late 17th-century work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Basho's work describes his journey, which followed in the footsteps of the 12th-century Japanese poet Saigyo Hoshi and visited all of the sites mentioned in his verses. Jane Reichhold translated Basho’s haiku and published them as a single volume, Basho: The Complete Haiku. Sam Hamill’s translations of Basho and other masters of haiku are found in The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets.
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