The Narrow Road to the Deep North – NOTES

Narrow RoadThe Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
2014 /334 pages (Kindle)
rating: 9.5 / historical fiction

Epigraph – “Mother, they write poems.”

Part I
Chapters 1 – 3 Dorrigo is a an old man – remembering his childhood to teen years – very poor beginnings,  illustrious adulthood as a famous war vet and doctor.
“Why at the beginning of things is there always more light?”  (p. 3)

Chapters 4 & 5  married,  age 27 with Amy his married lover

Chapter 6 – age 77, with Lynnette another married lover, age 55, thinking about the memoirs he’s writing,  his fame.

Chapter 7 – 9  Siam 1943 POWs held by the Japanese building the Death Railroad – “the line.”

Chapter 10 – Shiaksu poem – a circle – opposite of a line –

Chapter 11 – 14 other places of WWII – Middle East,  Africa, captured by Japanese and sent to Siam.

Chapter 15 -17  life in the camp – Rexroth the bigot and Dorrigo gains stature – many die

Chapter 18 – Dorrigo with Lynnette – hating virtue remembering


PART 2 –

Chapters 1 -3 –  Dorrigo age about 27,  engaged to Ella meets Amy –

Chapter 4 – Nakamura and Dorrigo in camp

Chapter 5 – Old man Dorrigo dreaming and waking with Lynnette – Kilt, Glenfiddic.  A  documentary about his own life – leaves  – book of Japanese Death poems.

Chapter 6- 7  – Ella – Dorrigo tells her about Amy although nothing happened between them  yet.  Discovers Amy is the wife of his uncle Keith who owns a pub in beach town.

Chapter 8 – Nakamura and others in camp – gets drugs, orders, difficulties, ticks

Chapter 9 -13   Dorrigo and Uncle Keith in pub, about Dorrigo’s mother, London Blitz.  Amy and Dorrigo go out – very close to sex. Dorrigo goes back to Army camp and Ella.

Chapter 14 – Nakamura and Kota – compare Japanese to English/Aussies – Japanese spirit, – discuss cutting off heads –

Chapter 15 – Dorrigo and Amy at the beach. Amy’s spirit.

Chapter 16 – Kota’s training in head chopping – why Japan is fighting war – (to eliminate colonization of Europeans, to show world that Japanese are master race).  Haiku and poetry – Japanese spirit –

Chapter 17 – Amy and Keith – Amy wants more – Amy runs around – (backstory maybe)

Chapter 18 – Amy and Dorrigo at the beach – a dog comes up –

Chapter 19 -27  the love story ambles along – background Amy’s husband (Uncle Keith) forced Amy to get an abortion and he feels it killed their later marriage.  Keith finds out  (has always known) about their affair.  Lies and more lies, guilt and more guilt.  Amy tells Dorrigo that Keith knows, he should go back to Ella, but  Dorrigo says he’ll  be back to marry her.  big time bad news set-up –  and Dorrigo is shipped out.  Much later Keith tells Amy that Dorrigo has been killed (He’s a POW.)  And something happens to their hotel/pub.


Part 3  This whole part is set in the jungle labor camp. This is the central part of the book and the central part of their lives.

Chapters 1-26

Set back in the POW camp,  this time with lots of  POW characters – Tiny and Darky and Morton and so on – Tiny pisses the others off because he works like a demon for the Japanese but that ends  in his collapse.  Darky gets sick but for one to die is for all to die in a sense. Gracie Fields   Rooster hates everything. Most get along. Dorrigo struggles to keep up appearances for the group’s sake – Tamil romusha (laborer) –  Diego loves his men – “falling in love.”

They are survivors of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other, a belief that they cleave to only more strongly when death comes. For if the living let go of the dead, their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever. (p. 155)

Letters from home – from Ella,  remembering Amy, – Rooster not understanding the bond between the others,  838 total but only 363 able to work.

** Now we see Dorrigo’s guilt because he’s sending unfit men to work.

Nakamura demands 430 men and beats on Dorrigo. “It was always raining.” (p. 166 – 50%)

The crew keeps working, Darky hurts his foot, eventually there are a lot of deaths and Dorrigo is grief-stricken. Some play hooky.

Kota unexpectedly checks the lines and finds Darky and almost chops his head off.   Darky makes it back to camp where Shugs saves him.

This whole thing is horrendous – the living conditions are really death conditions with all the associated body fluids and filth imaginable.  The men are starving to death, they’re made to do physical labor and then comes the cholera and the gangrene:

My only idea ever, Dorrigo had confessed, is to advance forward and charge the windmill. Taylor had laughed, but Dorrigo had meant it. It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible, Squizzy, he had explained, in as close to an explanation of himself as he ever offered. It’s believing in reality that does us in every time. (p. 201-202)

And Dorrigo has to do an amputation in these conditions – it’s filthy, bloody, if something can go wrong it does – very, very sad part –

The Japanese commanders insist on punishment for Darky because 8 of his men played hooky – but Darky is in the hospital – and he’s lucky he didn’t get his head chopped off.     It might bother the commanders but Kota was shamed and  if  Nakamura doesn’t get the “Emperor’s Will” done he will have to commit suicide.  Darky is beaten although severely ill – they see but cannot do anything so they do not see. Dorrigo tries to interfere to no avail.  There are no supplies – Nakamura is upset at everyone and trips,  Darky is  beaten harder.

Dorrigo understands that this all has to be done for the Emperor – it’s not about anything else.

And Darkie dies that night.

Shame and guilt –

Chapter 26  – decades later Jimmy insists on perfect folding of clothes – obsessions – but he would never hit his children.  Huge tension relief!


Part 4

Chapter 1 – 2  the desolation after the war – in Shinjuku (central coast of eastern Japan) –

NOTE:   The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the movie Rashomon, where four witnesses’ accounts of a rape and murder are all different.

Nakamura is destitute and in hiding – he kills a boy and steals money and food – justifies it – he is wanted for war crimes but no guilt.

Chapter 3 Choi Sang-min, the Korean guard for the Japanese, is now imprisoned in Changi prison awaiting hanging thinks about money and fairness – he only regrets he didn’t kill more POWs.  (no guilt)

Chapter 4 – 6 Australians later – alive or remembering – Bull Herbert,  Rooster MacNeice, Gallipoli Von Kessler, Bonox Baker,  Lizard Brancussi (a tragic story of memory and love),  Sheephead Morton,  Rabbit Hendricks,  Tiny Middleton, Yabby Barrows,  Jack Rainbow, Darky Gardiner, Jimmy Bigelow – singing,  a family man,.

Several go to Nikitari’s Fish Shop in Hobart  in memory of Darky – threw stones and later go back to apologize and stay and eat with the old Greek man.

Chapter 7  – Dorrigo not back to Sydney until 1948 and meets Ella and marries although he’s not really there – She calls him Alwyn – Dorrigo has an identity crisis and he can’t eat the steak.

Chapter 8 – Choi the Korean guard is sentenced – realizes that the biggies get off.

Chapter 9 – 10  Nakamura marries, gets a job, meets Sako who tells him of horrendous scientific experiments done on US military men.  Nakamura feels like he is also a victim of the war.  Americans want info about biological warfare for their own use.  Kato dies at 104 unseen, a Buddhist, changed but probably unrepentant.

Chapter 11- 13 – Dorrigo visits John Menadue in Hobart to give him medals. – Menadue was not a hero,  only a “leader.”  He visits a widow and they talk about love and land in bed together.  And he talks about love to the driver of his trip back.

Part 5
Chapter 1 -2 1966 –  Nakamuri has cancer, wife helps him and he knows peace – discovers he is a good man. Goes to see an old comrade in northern Japan and realizes he is tired – dying –

Chapter 3 – Dorrigo gets heavy, doesn’t really believe in anything, not even reality – many changes to him too.  But he’s bored with everything.  He hurts Ellen.

Chapter 4 – Ellen is devoted to Dorrigo and he only finds fault with her and her opinions.

Chapter 5 – Nakamura lump on neck, dying, thinking about war and casualties and what they had done. Triumph of railroad –

“He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness.”  (p. 294)

But even the one beautiful all-encompassing beyond good and evil word that was the Emperor had become horror.   He dies at home in pain, writes a poem.

Chapter 6 -9  Dorrigo is lonely – Ellen knows it – their marriage – their sex life – she smokes – he’d made her hard.  The memory of Amy recedes. Other women but he’s only lonelier for it. By infidelity to Ella he honors Amy? – Dorrigo is very successful at doctoring and forgets Amy.  He renews relationship with brother – memories – the one from the beginning of the whole book was misinterpreted by Dorrigo – Tom was crying into the woman’s shoulder – they weren’t embracing. But it turns out that Tom and the woman, Ruth, had a baby – Darky Gardiner –

This disturbs Dorrigo but then he finds Amy, they walk by each other

“But there is only light at the beginning of things.”  (p. 309) – also see pages 3 and 12.

and he realizes he was wrong about her/them/love – he had got time wrong.

Chapter 10 – Amy realizes Dorrigo had not died during the way – misunderstandings mis-perceptions on both parties – why had he not come back for her? She can’t forgive him. She’s had a life but now also has cancer.  She’s buried with the pearl necklace as she requested.

Chapter 11 – 13  Dorrigo goes to a conference and hunts up sis-in-law plus Ella and his own kids who are staying there because sis is sick.  Fires are started all around, can’t get up hill but he goes anyway –

Ella tries to get to safety with the children,  she is rebuffed by an old snooty woman, finds an empty house, hears a car and it’s Dorrigo.  They head through the flames – page-turning – survivors – love not love, etc. Now a family –

Chapter 14  Jimmy Bigelow, a regular character but only briefly a focus – memory is fading – he avoids triggers – cultivates birds.  He falls, dies, his daughter remembers him.

Chapter15 – Dorrigo is badly injured in a car wreck and has dreams of Amy while he’s dying.

Chapter 16 – flashback to another misperception – another lie – but then another reality –

The EPIGRAPHS  which begin each of the five parts is from ISSA a famous Japanese poet –  but there’s also one from Basho.  The epigraph to the novel is by Paul Celan, a German poet.


** the cruelty of war –  self explanatory –

** memory –  remembering is mentioned from the first pages and continues – when he’s in the camp he can’t remember Amy or Ella but when he’s back home he can’t remember Darky.

** identity – this is Dorrigo’s basic problem but they all have it – who are they after an experience like that? –  Or is it from the beginning?  –  This is Choi before he’s executed: ,

Though he had many names— his Korean name, Choi Sang-min; the Japanese name he had been given and made to answer to in Pusan, Akira Sanya; his Australian name that the guards now called him, the Goanna— he realised he had no idea who he was. Some of the other condemned had strong ideas about Korea and Japan, the war, history, religion, justice. Choi Sang-min realised he had no ideas about anything. (p. 261)

** guilt – Dorrigo feels some in the camps – then at home later – oddly Nakamura and Choi don’t while there,  although later it seems that Nakamura is able to recover his dignity without ever feeling guilt.  (But then,  it was a suicide mission for him.)

** Food – Darky remembers the fish shop and the camp survivors go visit.  Food is vital in the camps – sharing, hoarding, stealing, etc. Wasn’t Darky a cook or a provider of some sort? .  Nakakmura steals food later. .  Choi contemplates his “last meal.”  There might very well be more references to food but I’m not sure – the references kind of stand out when you consider.  Dorrigo can’t eat the steak –

** Sex – all parties – adultery to erections in camp – loss of interest – prostitutes –

** The Line –  where is the line?

What is a line, he wondered, the Line? A line was something that proceeded from one point to another— from reality to unreality, from life to hell—‘ breadthless length’, as he recalled Euclid describing it in schoolboy geometry. A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the procession from life to death. A journey to hell.”

** Reality –  relationship to above – life/death – perception –
** Change –  everyone and everything changes –

** Good vs Evil -?  – changes,

Favorite lines:

“But there is only light at the beginning of things.”  (p. 309) – also see pages 3 and 12.

“But who remembers a cloud?” (p. 310 – also see – p. 100

“Charge the windmill.”  (p. 321 – 202 -206, 288)


From the Guardian interview with Flanagan:

I am no expert on Japanese literature, but I do have a great love of it. For the novel to escape judgement, I did seek to use the influences of Japanese poetry and fiction to shape the essence of a book. The structure, really, is that of Akutagawa’s Rashomon; the language’s economy informed by Japanese poetry. There is much else besides, but that’s not the point.

The heart of it is this: if these poems and novels represent high points of Japanese culture, my father’s experience represents one of its lowest points. And at some level, it mattered to me to reconcile the two, and it felt that only by reconciling them could I write this novel.


There are several stories wound around here – one is in the present with Dorrigo Evans as an old man remembering his past – at least these parts are told from his pov although not first person.   Dorrigo s a celebrated doctor and war hero who really doesn’t believe he’s worth all that much.

burmarail This is the frame and we remember along with him.

The central story,  Part 3,  is of his time as an Australian POW held by the Japanese and enslaved to build  the Burma Railroad from  Siam (Thailand) to Burma.  This is historical and Flanagan’s father was one of the Australians. It was known as the “Death Railroad.”

Dorrigo’s story starts in his youth with one chapter culminating in a beautiful line as he catches a ball in a schoolyard game:

And in the deepest recesses of his being, Dorrigo Evans understood that all his life had been a journeying to this point when he had for a moment flown into the sun and would now be journeying away from it forever after. Nothing would ever be as real to him. Life never had such meaning again. (p. 9 Kindle)

That pretty well sets up the reader for Dorrigo’s having a rather unhappy life, eh,  or maybe just  less clearcut.

The other chapters in this Part are about Dorrigo’s love life,  his wife Ella,  his obsessive love for his uncle’s wife, Amy and his old-age lover, Lynette, another married woman.

I’m thinking that the line from Page 22 (see above under Themes: ** Line) may be the main theme involving all three stories.

There are various nationalities scattered throughout which puts the whole novel on the level of universal themes – human truths, if ou will.   the Australians, the Japanese, English, Africans, French, and their costumes are sometimes mentioned, kilt, puttee, sporran – etc.

He had never met people with such certainty before. Jews and Catholics were less, Irish ugly, Chinese and Aborigines not even human. (p. 11)

Explain to me, Jimmy Bigelow was saying, why we machine-gun waves of black Africans fighting for the French who are equally intent on killing us, Australians fighting for the English in the Middle East?  (p. 28)

This is an interesting article by Flanagan about writing the novel – it’s well worth reading I think:


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