World War II may just be the most unsightly stain on the dark and messy tapestry that is the history of this world, but it has since then sought to redeem itself by serving as a redoubtable muse and consistently yielding works of art that vary in quality, ranging from literature and movies of the highest grade to the occasional dud which can only be described as torture porn.
Given the voluminous tomes and the many films that most have already waded through, horrified and shocked senseless by the atrocities documented of a time when mankind seemed hell bent on plumbing the furthest depths of evil, it is safe to say that the majority have grown benumbed to the terrible tragedy of that awful war. Richard Flanagan comes along with his sixth novel and suddenly the horror is real all over again. The bone-jarring visceral imagery he conjures up of the immense suffering endured by too-many-to-count will be burnt into the brain forevermore where the memory of lost souls who died senselessly for no discernible cause will haunt the living in the futile hope that all will learn the lessons offered by a tragic and too easily forgotten past.
Flanagan’s epic is about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor, who is not only doomed to suffer an unlucky romance but also finds himself in charge of a group of POWs who have been condemned to serve on the ‘Line’—the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway dreamed up by a desperate Japanese Empire and given its impetus by the infallible logic of war. The 77-year-old Dr Evans is haunted in equal measure by his ‘cobbers’ who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving” but who insisted on dying anyway and the memory of his overwrought love affair with his uncle’s young wife which nudges him along a tortuous path of private emptiness which he seeks to plug with a string of meaningless affairs and public honours that he grows to loathe.
When asked to write a foreword to a collection of sketches made by one of the deceased who had been in his unit, Dorrigo Evans begins a harrowing trip down the memory lane hurtling backwards and forward in time as he recalls the woman he loved and lost and the men with whom he shared an unbreakable bond of shared suffering. Flanagan introduces us to a motley cast of characters amongst the POWs who are unflinchingly presented with their warts intact. They are often petty, selfish and driven to cruelty brought on in part but not only by the unrelenting harshness their lives have become reduced to in a world where “violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time”. Even more striking though is the kindness, generosity, and resilient spirit that refuses to allow them to discard the trapping of what makes them truly humane. Darky Gardiner aka the Black Prince has to be one of the most exquisite literary creations of all time and his is a story that will never fail to wring the heart and scorch the soul of even the most hardened and cynical readers.
In a risky move, Flanagan chooses to dwell on the point of view of the Japanese and Korean guards as well. It is an expertly executed manoeuvre by a virtuoso since it forces one to desist from the all-too-easy blame game and instead take into account, the variable factors that had gone into the making of a breeding ground, ripe for evil to flourish that made monsters out of ordinary men who had they been born in another era would have in all likelihood led the most unremarkable lives without the tiniest urge to give or carry out orders that involved beating men to within an inch of their lives or literally working them to death.
Flanagan’s enthralling saga of endless privation is truly remarkable and a novel that will forever tower in the literary pantheon reserved for immortals. It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and all who have read this tale, will be rooting for a much-deserved win.