Book review: The slaughterhouses of the world

(Published in the Business Standard, October 19, 2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North
Richard Flanagan
Random House;
474 pages; Rs 420

On June 27, 1971, Gitta Sereny conducted her final interview with Franz Stangl, who had been the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor. She had already accumulated 70 hours of interviews with this man, responsible for the deaths of so many, in what would be a lifelong mission to understand evil.

In this last interview, her questions were pressing, and she withdrew her sympathy: she did not accuse Stangl, but she placed a fence of silence between her and him.

“My conscience is clear about what I did, myself,” he said as he had said many times before. Sereny said nothing.

“I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,” he said. Sereny remained silent.

“But I was there,” he finally said.

Those few sentences, Sereny wrote, had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. Stangl, 63, went on to speak of his guilt. Sereny left; and a few hours after her departure, the former camp commandant died, of natural causes.

That story makes a powerful impact because it is true. Perhaps we need it to be true, to believe that in the long annals of human history, evil is brought to its knees when it finally glimpses its own face in the mirror. But what happened between Stangl and Sereny is also powerful because it is rare.

In the world we live in, the men who start wars, crusades, medieval battles of conquest or riots, who cause the deaths of thousands and hundreds of thousands, often avoid confrontation and punishment. The world’s most efficient mass murderers are not known for admitting their own guilt.

Richard Flanagan’s is a war story that treats the mysteries of love and the mysteries behind evil with equal weight. It starts quietly, with a line of immense beauty: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?”

Then it follows the veteran soldier Dorrigo Evans into appalling darkness – not the war of combat and trenches, recognisable and touched with glory despite the destruction, but a far grimmer business. Mr Flanagan’s sixth, Booker-winning novel takes its title from a Basho poem, and is dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”.  Mr Flanagan’s father was one of the few to survive the Death Railway, which took the lives of some 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs), and a “quarter of a million Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, Malayans, Thais and Burmese”, who were conscripted along with the POWs by the Japanese to build the line between Burma and Siam in 1943.

For the survivors, Mr Flanagan writes, “Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not. Or perhaps only one sort: the men who survived the Line.”

In J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a novel that judders as a novel but is indispensible as an examination into the perils of attempting to understanding evil, there is a moment where Costello sets forth a plea for not wading into the murk and horror of the worst of human suffering. She calls explorations of evil obscene: “Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world.”

In Costello’s cautionary words – ruthlessly picked apart by Mr Coetzee’s pitilessly inquiring mind – she echoes the warning that a bishop gave Gitta Sereny, when they met while she was researching murderers and the worst of humanity. He said to Sereny that she should be careful of “exposing oneself” to the devil, for then the devil might invade those who are that unguarded against horror.

Mr Flanagan is no horror tourist; if you take this journey with him, he will guide you through these circles of hell with pity and compassion. His approach is very distinct from the safely distant frisson of shock that accompanies the ritualised viewings of today’s news pictures of dead infants or beheadings, and Mr Flanagan has, as a human and a writer, no truck with the current vogue for the pornography of violence.

The Death Railway, in his careful but unflinching reconstruction, pitted real horror – deaths by cholera, by beatings, from ulcers, from starvation, men rotting in the jungle humidity on the Line – against small things, friendship and the sharing of a duck’s egg, minuscule kindnesses offered by the dying to the near-dead.

Dorrigo Evans, who hates virtue and men of virtue, is a living demonstration of human goodness all the same; and men such as Major Nakamura and the Koran soldier called The Goanna are seen to have been warped by evil, the way wood warps and rots in the rain, without losing their sense of themselves as good, normal people.

The force behind Mr Flanagan’s writing is imperceptible, but undeniable: The Narrow Road To The Deep North is one of those rare books that has the power to change its reader. It carries the same urgency and moral force as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Braided with Dorrigo Evans’ memories of the Line is the other part of his life – a love affair with a woman, vivid, blue-eyed, whom he first sees wearing a red flower. Amy is married to his Uncle Keith; Dorrigo will marry another woman, have children with her, and both these marriages will have the weight, sag and comfortable shelter that old relationships provide over time. Mr Flanagan is as good at describing love – its inexplicable power, its everyday beauty, the inexorable force of it – as he is at describing war, and Amy (“Amy, amie, amour”) becomes as real to the reader as Dorrigo has. They make the right decisions, or perhaps the wrong ones: Mr Flanagan understands that adultery has as many complex shades as a marriage, and that both of these relationships have their own secrets, their own particular sanctity.

It is not that difficult to come across well-crafted books, but it is a rare novel that is, in Mr Flanagan’s phrase, life itself. Parts of The Narrow Road To The Deep North are intensely difficult to read, as hard as reading survivors’ accounts of massacres or autopsy reports. But Mr Flanagan keeps the reader going because his prose is compelling, if unbearably honest in its depiction of evil, almost too convincing in its understanding of what might make those who have committed evil feel absolved, if they have done it in the company of others.

“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”; but Dorrigo Evans has both a demon-haunted past and the memory of an undeniable, burnished, true love. It will take you a long time to forget him, or the novel and the world on the Line that he survived.





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