The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the narrow road to the deep north cover

An Olympian I interviewed told me about a time he returned from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and gave a talk at a Rotary Club. He spoke about how wonderful the experience was, and how friendly and helpful the Japanese were. The Olympian’s father who was at the presentation had a friend who remembered the Japanese differently, and resented the Olympian’s talk.

1964 was only a couple of decades removed from World War II. For those who served in the Pacific War on either side, atrocities were the product of everyday life, particularly in the latter years of the war.

A book I am currently reading, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, tells the story of an Australian POW, Dorrigo Evans, who worked on the infamous “Line”, the construction of the Burma Railway. Hundreds of thousands of slave labor, made up of PoWs and captive Asian civilian labor, perished in the effort.

This Man Booker Award winning novel by Richard Flanagan is extraordinary in its descriptions of the human psyche, not only from the hero’s survivor complex to the sword-wielding, poetry-citing slave-driving commander.

Dorrigo Evans is the surviving protagonist of the novel, and I was struck by this reference to fleeting nature of life and beauty. He and his lover Amy are lying on the beach, an idyllic time prior to the horrors that awaited months later.

Dorrigo held his arm up to the white-streaked sky and thought he had never seen anything so perfect. He closed one eye and with his other watched his finger touch the beauty of a cloud.

Why don’t we remember clouds? He said.

Because they don’t mean anything.

And yet they’re everything, thought Dorrigo, but this idea was too vast or absurd to hold or even care about, and he let it drift past him with the cloud.

Is it reference to Basho? This was one of his poems in his book “Oku no Hosomichi”, translated by Donald Keene as “The Narrow Road to Oku”:

The peaks of clouds
Have crumbled into fragments –
The moonlit mountain!