Memories and literature

The human story of the horror of war: Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand. The four men are suffering from beri beri that also afflicted the prisoners of war in Richard Flanagan's The Road to the Deep North. Photo: unknown, 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:POWs_Burma_Thai_RR.jpg

The human story of the horror of war: Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand. The four men are suffering from beri beri that also afflicted the prisoners of war in Richard Flanagan’s The Road to the Deep North. Photo: unknown, 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:POWs_Burma_Thai_RR.jpg

Over the past two weeks I have read two books in two very different ways.

Firstly, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a birthday present to my husband late last year. He took it on the trip to read, but last week it was me who picked up the paperback to read the Australian Man Booker Prize winner from last year.

The story is about Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and set to work on the Emperor’s railway in Thailand. Told in five parts, we follow the main character, Dorrigo Evans, from earliest childhood memory to death. From meeting Amy, the love of his life, over his life as an army surgeon in charge of the Australian POWs in the Japanese camp on the Thai-Burma railway, to his loveless post-war marriage, fame and death. The story is captivating and excellent.

Getting started was hard going and to me the first part of the book did not begin to make sense until I finished it and turned it over to reread those first 18 short chapters. Without understanding the significance of the many characters introduced, this first part was confusing with its jumps in time. I very nearly gave up on the book before finishing those first 59 pages. But then in the second part, the story took off and carried me through the next 400 pages to the end, through the sea of love, lust and longing, through the mud, unspeakable horror and desparation of the war camp, to the aftermath for both survivors and captors and the profound impact on the lives of all involved.

Richard Flanagan: The Road to the Deep North, 2013. Photo: Lone

Richard Flanagan: The Road to the Deep North, 2013. Photo: Lone

I am glad I persevered. The book is about the horrors of war, but is mostly about humanity and human relationships. It leaves me with the sense that humanity will prevail and that what matters is how we relate to each other irrespective of all of the circumstances and horrors that are around us.

Among all the rotting skin and seeping ulcers, crude amputations, bodies so skinny anuses stick out, mud and shit, it was Dorrigo’s initial adamant denial that memories matter that horrified me the most. Thus he threw Rabbit Hendrick’s sketchbook on the inferno that was his burial. Thankfully Dorrigo later picks up the book, partly damaged from the fire, but sufficiently whole to keep and be published post war. Memories do matter. And as the people who have the memories first hand die we risk the stories, their truth, will never be remembered. Flanagan dedicated the novel to his father, a POW on the death railway, who died the day the novel was finished.

Though personally I have no connection with the Australian war experience in Asia, it is clear to me that this is an important Australian story and a book worth spending time with to make human sense of the history books’ treatment of these events.

The second book was a Danish audio book. Jens Vilstrup’s Opland is a story about a doctor living in Copenhagen returning to his unnamed home town in Jutland when his father dies. Socially mobile against all odds, the doctor finds his home town a desolate place of alcoholism, violence and child abuse and memories of his childhood intermingle with surreal events leading up to his father’s funeral. He can only hardly connect with the friends he used to have. He was the one who left, while they were stuck.

The experience of an audio novel is entirely different from holding the novel and reading it – it all happens in the head and there is little tactile experience. This book is read by Jesper Vilsom, whose accent is from too far south in Jutland to confuse the story’s location until references to surrounding towns and roads narrows it down to the local area of where my father grew up, not far from my own childhood home in Mid-Jutland.

The author also jumps back and forth in time. In the hard copy, childhood memories are marked by italics, but in the audio version there is no marker. I did not mind this – there seemed to be sufficient segway back and forth for it to make sense.

The setting of Jens Vilstrup's Opland is this - flat and bleak reclaimed heath. Photo: Lone 2013.

The setting of Jens Vilstrup’s Opland is this – flat and bleak reclaimed heath. Photo: Lone 2013.

The story is based on the Author’s childhood memories – he is three years older than I am but some seem too violent and too plentifully serious to be true. While I cannot recognise the violence or desolateness, some cultural references ring true from my own childhood: John Mogensen, Sex Pistols and shaggy carpets. I also recognise the drunkenness, the youth criminality and the strange drug-induced sensiblity of people I knew in Herning when my then boyfriend was at home in those circles.

Vilstrup’s writing leaves me with the smell of musty, too-warm living rooms of older people and the deafening sound of squealing pigs in my grandfather’s stable just before feeding time. I can see the flatlands of the reclaimed heath of Jutland that I have passed through so many times to go back to Herning on the train.

Like Vilstrup I also left my childhood town to study. I later left the country for adventure and then emigrated entirely. Unlike Vilstrup when I come back, as I have now, I feel so at home in Denmark. My family and old friends embrace me and are so happy we can spend time together.

While the Danish book was of more personal relevance to me – and much easier to read than the Australian one – it certainly is not Man Booker Prize material. However, both books explore the role and lifelong impact of violence, one in a significant historical setting, the other in a more personal setting, unfamiliar and insignificant to those who have not experienced it.

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