A tangle of despair, degradation, confusion, certainty, beauty, horror and meaning
This is a book which at times I struggled with – a hard book, but for all the right reasons, as it is confrontational, shakes the reader awake, out of complacency and denial
I read this book at times as if grasping at mist. It is ‘everything’ filled both with a sense of the utter, pointless indifference and suffering of existence and the flips, almost on a knife edge, into ‘peak experience’ super reality, deep meaning, which vanishes as we grasp at recognising it.
A book which leaves the reader (well this reader) all shook up, spread-eagled and exhausted by the whole complex STUFF of living, wondering at times whether they can bear to continue reading – or bear to stop reading. If you think ‘what on earth is this reviewer going on about’ – well, in part that IS what the book is like, as it follows the story, flipping back and forth over a period of some fifty years, in the life of Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian, an Army doctor, caught up in World War 2, captured by the Japanese, and a POW involved in the brutal building of the Burma railway for the glory of Japan
The structure of the novel flips over and over between Dorrigo in his 70s, the young Dorrigo, in his 20’s, recently enlisted, undergoing training in Australia, then, slightly later, that intolerable, impossible experience as a POW. The ‘old’ Dorrigo of course is at the same time those younger versions, in the way we are always living our present lives backwards, since the place we are always contains the places we have been. He, like all of us, tries to find the story which explains him to himself.
This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, or indeed those with weak stomachs. There are scorching descriptions of atrocities, the terrible effects of starvation and disease, and the implacable brutality our species can visit upon each other – and, indeed upon anything at all.
Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning. Horror just is. And while it reigns, it is as if there is nothing in the universe that it is not.
What Flanagan achieves however is to prevent easy demonising – we see, time and again, the weak and the petty achieve moments of humanity – and even those we easily dismiss as monsters are made sense of. Devotion to ideals can damn us all as surely as it can raise and refine us. Even the heroes are more complex, and, in day to day life, sometimes more cruel than we might need them to be.
Because courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves
Parallel to the stories of nations and individuals representing those nations and their ideals, the ‘isms’ through which a wider society gets shaped, and shapes us, are the more personal ideals we may live by. Dorrigo Evans carries both these aspects, that of the world stage, and that of the private and personal myth and story.
Shortly before being catapulted into the war Evans was involved in a scorching, overwhelming encounter with Amy, his uncle’s wife, and one of the themes of the book is the cataclysmic effect of love – or lust, and the confusion between the two – to shape a life, the idea of love as a guiding star, which may be as destructive – or constructive – as devotion to an ideal.
The book’s title refers to a collection of poems about the solitary, reflective travels undertaken by the revered 17th Century Japanese poet Bashō, which comment sparely on moments, and, within a Zen tradition, invite reflection. Two of the Japanese POW guards discuss the poems and reflect upon them. They, like Dorrigo, and many of the characters, attempt to understand ‘why am I here at all’, and the moments of utter pointlessness of a life, and its absolute crystallisation of meaning, dizzyingly are lost and found, again and again.
It is a stunningly written book, horrific, beautiful and troubling, as hewn out of elemental stuff as Greek Tragedy, reminding me of how raw and transformative literature can be, when it engages with our deep need to make sense of our time here.
The complex central character of Dorrigo Evans, is also, no surprise, a passionate reader and writer. At one point, he muses thus:
A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to re-read the book. A great read compels you to reread your own soul
And this most definitely does.
Flanagan’s own father was one of those POWs who worked on the line, so this book clearly arose from personal, family history, and holds much more than just ‘objective research into a subject’
My thanks to fellow blogger Reading, Writing and Reisling whose impassioned review of the book added it to the tottery pile of ‘must read immediately’ books. I took it slowly, as she intimated it needed, and, indeed it is far too loaded a book to race with