A notable tourist attraction in Thailand is the bridge “over the River Kwai”—part of the Death Railway built during World War II by the Japanese using the labor of Allied POWs under atrocious conditions. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian Richard Flanagan, follows the Australian contributors to this grandiose project, as well as its Japanese administrators, many of whom were destined to become prisoners themselves.
Dorrigo Evans is a hard-drinking and philandering Aussie military doctor. His resemblance to Errol Flynn fails to prevent his capture by the Japanese. (An unintended irony: the Khmer Rouge most likely captured and killed Errol's son, Sean.) Torn from Amy, the love of his life, Evans ministers to fellow POWs suffering from cholera and similar ills. Acclaimed a war hero upon his release, he finds, like many veterans, that life after war seems tepid.
Evans’ foil is Tenji Nakamura, who was part of the Japanese plan to conquer India via rail—dreams which went up in atomic vapor. Nakamura scrapes together a life in the aftermath, all the while fearful of the noose meant for war criminals.
The Death Railway story has already been told several times over (including in a novel that inspired the award-winning film The Bridge Over the River Kwai). So The Narrow Road to the Deep North is light on plot and even historical detail, instead becoming a winding eulogy to Australia's servicemen and the war era—a topic personal to Flanagan since his own father was one of those Australian POWs. It is also literary in a self-referential way. The novel's title is taken from Basho, and Tennyson's "Ulysses" serves as a motif, as does Kipling's "Recessional.” The result can be exhilarating, but it can also trivialize the grim historical reality behind it.
Even so, Flanagan is to be lauded for the empathy he shows to both prisoners and wardens. Their handiwork can be seen to this day in the land then known as Siam. "Lest we forget," as Kipling put it.