Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Sorrow and the Pity Richard Flanagan's Novel of Japanese Military Occupation and 'Death Railway' Is a Masterpiece

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Sorrow and the Pity Richard Flanagan's Novel of Japanese Military Occupation and 'Death Railway' Is a Masterpiece

Article excerpt

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North," now in paperback, was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize, the purpose of which is to "promote the finest fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year." Author Richard Flanagan has stated that it took him 12 years to write this book and that he couldn't move on to another until he finished it. Readers will be gratified that he took his time.

It is, at once, a love story and an immersion into an awful piece of history - what was rightly called the "Death Railway" that the author says was the ambition of the Japanese to build to ultimately connect Burma to India, deemed impossible by all others, but taken on by the Japanese military during World War II as a fit example of their right to supremacy.

During 1942-43, thousands of Australian and other Allied POWs and Asian laborers were forced by their Japanese captors to give up their lives for this grandiose folly, which was imagined to demonstrate the triumph of the global Japanese empire.

Instead, it became a sinkhole in which individuals could show their capacity for great depravity or great fortitude. The horrors of their POW experience are crystalized in the events of one particularly awful day when one of the prisoners is apparently beaten to death but, in fact, drowns in the waste of his compatriots.

How does a love story fit into the large tapestry of war? Only in the way that a dream teases and illuminates and calls everything into question. In a parallel world, the central character, Dorrigo Evans, fell madly and terribly in love with his uncle's wife, and their affair rips apart all expectations of safety, setting him on a lifelong path of questioning the meaning of anything and everything.

"A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else," the novel says, continuing: "In his old age Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or made it up. Made up, mixed up, and broken down. Rock to gravel to dust to mud to rock and so the world goes, as his mother used to say when he demanded reasons or explanation as to how the world got to be this way or that. …

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