I read Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, mostly for the light it sheds on construction, during World War II, of the “death railway” between Burma and Thailand. For sure it’s an important novel focused on a powerful love story going well beyond the events of 1942-43 – but this was my main interest.
Flanagan’s account of life on “the Line” is graphic, visceral and moving. Between the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 and the journey of locomotive C5631 pulling three carriages of Japanese and Thai dignitaries the full length of the track on October 25, 1943, 60,000 mainly Australian and English prisoners of war and 250,000 mostly Burmese, Chinese and Tamil coolies laboured in truly horrific conditions. Nobody knows how many died, but the total lies somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Of the 9000 Australians around whom the novel revolves, 3000 perished. “But the railway, Colonel Kota said, is no less a battlefield than the front line in Burma.” (p.88)
Especially convincing to me is depiction of the Japanese military mind – not that I’m in any sense expert. This is Kota again on the “larger point”: “It is that this railway is the great epoch-making construction of our century. Without European machinery, within a time considered extraordinary, we will build what the Europeans said it was not possible to build over many years. This railway is the moment when we and our outlook become the new drivers of world progress.” (p.88) A little later comes an exchange between Kota and his subordinate Major Nakamura: “It’s not just about the railway, Colonel Kota said, though the railway must be built. Or even the war, though the war must be won. It’s about the Europeans learning that they are not the superior race, Nakamura said. And us learning that we are, Colonel Kota said.” (p.94) Both provide clear perspectives on what Nakamura calls “our motto, The Whole World Under One Roof“. (p.87)
All good, then. Moreover, strictly on the topic that most interested me and indeed motivated me to read the book, one issue that surely arises is this: Do we learn much more than we already know from David Lean’s epic, Oscar-laden 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai (itself based on Pierre Boulle’s 1952 French novel)? That’s a question I’ll pick up on tomorrow.