Everett Collection

Sessue Hayakawa as a Japanese colonel and Alec Guinness as a British POW forced to work on the Burma railroad in Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957

Christopher Isherwood called it the Test. He was obsessed by the idea that men of his generation, born too late to have fought in the Great War, were never put to the test of manhood imposed on their fathers. Isherwood was ten in 1915 when his father, Frank Isherwood, a professional soldier, died in France. It affected him deeply. The test of manhood, for him, was more than trial by gunfire (he was in fact a pacifist); it was sexual as much as anything else. He liked to say that he had to prove himself by courting risk. Homosexuality was cast as a form of rebellion. Not that having sex with tough Berlin street boys was really comparable to facing German machine guns on the Somme, but there was a tenuous link, at least in Isherwood’s mind.

The Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, whose book won this year’s Booker Prize, was born sixteen years after the end of World War II, too long, perhaps, to be bothered by the Test. But his father was a POW forced to work on the Thai–Burma railroad. Few things could be more testing than that.

This so-called Death Railway was meant to send supplies and reinforcements to Japanese troops in occupied Burma from Malaya through Thailand. Japanese engineers had calculated that the mountainous terrain was so impenetrable that it would take at least five years to construct a railroad. The British before them had decided that it would be utterly impossible. But with more than 60,000 Allied POWs at their disposal, and many more Asian slave workers, Japanese military authorities decided that the job should be completed in eighteen months.

As a result of savage treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, tropical diseases, starvation, and merciless hard labor, especially during the insane “speedo” (high-speed) campaign in 1943, more than 12,000 Westerners died, and possibly more than 100,000 Asians. Even though the first locomotive to run on the Death Railway is still proudly displayed at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of imperial Japanese soldiers are worshiped by Japanese nationalists, including the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the tracks were so shoddy that most of the railroad had to be rebuilt by the Thais after the war.

Working on the Death Railway was an experience that can scarcely be imagined. Yet that is precisely what Flanagan has tried to do: imagine it. More than that, he has sought to imagine what the POWs’ Japanese slave drivers did and thought as well.

The result is a novel that is sometimes almost unbearable to read, because of the horrors it describes. Just one example: an Australian POW named Darky Gardiner, falsely accused of slacking off at his job, is flogged half to death by Japanese guards and then drowns in the shit of a prisoners’ latrine. Flanagan’s book, too, deals with tests of manhood. In some ways, it is a study of Australian masculinity, and sex plays an important part in this. But the book offers a bleak vision of manhood; if anything, it is anti-macho.

Flanagan clearly admires the men who starved and slaved and died and suffered tortures in the fertile muck of the Thai jungle. But his novel is not a conventional tale of human triumph over adversity. What permeates the story is a sense of failure—notably to find meaning in the most extreme deprivations and in the rewards of life in peace. Our only hope of finding some sense in our lives, it seems, lies in art and literature. Flanagan, descended from a tough line of Irish convicts, is a proud son of Tasmania, a former penal colony whose men have no time for artsy stuff, but he is above all a very literary writer, indeed a rather delicate Australian poet in prose.

The main character in the novel, named Dorrigo Evans, a medical doctor who tries his best to pull the men under his charge through the atrocities of a slave labor camp, is said to be loosely based on a man who actually existed: Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, great sportsman, born leader, legendary hero of the Burma railroad, and a famous and much decorated public figure who did a great deal for the welfare of former POWs. If anyone had passed the test of manhood, it was Weary Dunlop.

But great heroes can also be great bores. In Dorrigo Evans, Flanagan has created a complicated, tormented character. He, too, behaved heroically during the war, and is celebrated for his heroism. But his worldly success means little to him. If anything, the accolades of society accentuate the emptiness he feels inside. His marriage to a beautiful and loving woman named Ella feels dutiful. And none of the many women—mostly the wives of his colleagues—he takes to his bed can erase the memory of an abandoned pre-war love affair with his uncle Keith’s wife Amy, Evans’s only brush with real human passion.


Books are in fact his main love. “He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.” Fatally wounded, long after the war, in a banal car crash, he lies in his hospital bed whispering the words of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars until I die.” The nurses think he is raving. In fact, the poem is entirely apt. Dorrigo’s odyssey, filled with many sirens to tempt him, is finally over. What gave his journey its sense was not coming home to worldly success and the family hearth, but the trials along the way. But these only find their meaning, or resolution, in words, literary words, poetry.

To some men who have fought in war, the rest of their life often feels insipid. Nothing can live up to the intensity of comradeship in the face of violent death. For a man who has experienced combat, it can be rather a jolt to shuffle around a suburban supermarket shopping for groceries. Survivors of murderous camps, who have no reason to feel any nostalgia, sometimes find it hard to make much sense of their subsequent lives. Entire nations can stay obsessed for a long time with the experience of recent wars, which are often richly mythologized, because nothing so dramatic occurred before or since.

In Flanagan’s novel a POW named Jimmy Bigelow, who was in the Burma railroad camp with Evans, rebuilds his postwar life more successfully than many. For him the war “had been an interruption to the real world and a real life.” But even he can’t escape from his memories in the end. He gets married, has children, then grandchildren, and then

the slow decline, and the war came to him more and more and the other ninety years of his life slowly dissolved. In the end he thought and spoke of little else—because, he came to think, little else had ever happened.

Evans, and one assumes Flanagan too, is not romantic about war. He doesn’t believe that suffering is a kind of grace that lends virtue to the sufferers. Indeed, Evans “hated virtue, hated virtue being admired, hated people who pretended he had virtue or pretended to virtue themselves.” Virtue, he believed, was just “vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”

There is an element of masculine posturing in this: a man’s got to do what he’s got to do, and all that. But Evans doesn’t think of his wartime behavior as virtuous. The Japanese in Flanagan’s novel are not demons, and the Aussies, including Evans, are far from being saints. They cheat on their friends, steal their last scraps of food, and ignore some other poor bastard who has collapsed facedown into the blood-soaked mud. But Evans still cares for his men, even though he can’t save most of them. They are sick, starving wrecks, forced to work day and night building a railway in the jungle by Japanese officers who are bound to a lunatic schedule and don’t care how many POWs die in the process. Evans knows that the slaves have to stick together, 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.”

It is this feeling of solidarity, perhaps, and the heightened sense of life when it can be taken away at any moment, by disease, hunger, or the relentless blows of a Japanese whip, that are hard to recapture when “normal” life resumes. Here again, Flanagan adds a literary element to his hero’s alienation from the postwar world. Evans

felt the withering of something, the way the risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving than the reading of poetry.

The correlation between poetry and taking risks is unusual. But it makes total sense in Flanagan’s work, which deals in such a literary way with trials of manhood.

What makes the novel especially interesting is that the Japanese, however cruel in their wartime behavior, are not depicted simply as the evil foils of Australian decency. Their views on the world, religious faith, patriotism, or warrior codes are very different, to be sure. If Flanagan can be faulted on his description of Japanese soldiers, it is that they fall a little bit too neatly into the patterns of unquestioned emperor worship and perverted samurai ethics. There is no doubt that Japanese soldiers were indoctrinated with the notion that surrender was so dishonorable that enemy POWs could be treated with total contempt. Western men, especially tall men, were sometimes deliberately humiliated in front of local people to show who was boss in Asia now. More often, however, Malays, Chinese, and other Asians were treated worse.


But torturing people to death, a specialty of the dreaded Japanese military police, or Kempeitai, was hardly a samurai tradition. And in fact, in previous wars, such as the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japanese soldiers had treated their prisoners with considerable respect. But the Imperial Japanese army in the 1940s was a far more brutal and less disciplined outfit than in 1905. Flanagan’s masterstroke is to show how the thought processes of Japanese, such as the cruel camp commandant Major Nakamura, despite his horrific indoctrination, could still run oddly parallel to those of a man like Evans.

Nakamura, too, in his moments of despair, when his military masters force him to demand the utterly impossible from his POW slaves and the camp he runs turns into a human slaughterhouse, finds meaning in poetry. His superior, Colonel Kota, is a specialist in cutting prisoners’ heads off with his samurai sword. Unlike Nakamura, who needs stimulant drugs to keep going, Kota actually relishes his murderous task. One day they have a conversation about the camp, the railroad, and the war. It’s not just about the war, says Nakamura: “It’s about the Europeans learning that they are not the superior race.” Kota adds, “And us learning that we are.” After a moment of silent contemplation, Kota recites a poem:


Everett Collection

The POW camp in Bridge on the River Kwai

Even in Kyoto
when I hear the cuckoo
I long for Kyoto.

Basho, Nakamura said.

Basho’s most famous work, a poetic travel journal written in the late seventeenth century, was called The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The Burma railway was meant to help Japanese troops reach all the way to India, which would then be liberated from the British. In Nakamura’s view, “the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.”

I’m not sure how convincing this really is. The camp commander’s poetic metaphors tell us more about Flanagan’s aestheticism, perhaps, than about the thinking of wartime Japanese soldiers. But it is a nice conceit. The superiority of Japan, the nobility of its war, and the terrible sacrifices it demanded, including the necessity to drive foreign POWs to their deaths, are expressed in the condensed words of a seventeenth-century haiku poet.

Again, Nakamura is not an evil man. After the war, he is kindly, even rather meek. Precisely because he isn’t a monster, he had to justify monstrous orders by infusing them with a bogus nobility. He tried think of himself as a noble man, because he managed to overcome his revulsion against torturing slave workers in the name of a higher cause. But then he finds it as hard as his victims to deal with life when the war is over. For there was precious little left in postwar Japan of the ideals of emperor worship and warrior codes for which this simple engineer was transformed into a killer.

After the war, he is given a job at the Japan Blood Bank by his old superior on the Death Railway, Colonel Kota, who just happens to be part of this organization, which was in reality founded by a former war criminal responsible for gruesome germ warfare experiments in Manchuria. Such a coincidence is of course possible, but perhaps a little too contrived. As is the side story of Kota being preserved as a kind of mummy after his death, so that his daughter can collect his welfare checks. By his bedside lies a copy of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. A dry blade of grass marks the page where it says: “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So too the years that pass by.”

This, too, is not impossible to imagine. But Flanagan has a tendency to work his narrative a little too hard to make a philosophical point, often expressed in poetic language.

Flanagan’s literary technique reflects his concern with poetry. He uses poetic images that recur, rather like a leitmotif, in the novel. One them is dust motes dancing in the light, ephemeral and random like so much in life. Evans’s loveless marriage leaves him with a feeling “as baffling as a million dancing and meaningless dust motes.” A letter from his wife reaches him in the POW camp, normally a precious sign of love and life to be treasured. But her words “kept scattering and rising off the page as dust motes, more and more dust motes bouncing off one another….”

Years after the war, he suddenly spots his pre-war lover, Amy, walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge. He lets her pass him by unnoticed. The people around him, going hither and thither, are like “wild flying particles in the light, lost long ago, as he knew everything now was lost….”

Poetic metaphors apply to the Japanese guards as well. On a trip to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to visit a wartime comrade, Nakamura sees ice sculptures being constructed along the road from the airport, images of Godzilla, Giant Robo, and other monsters. The memories of wartime atrocities come back to him as he listens to his friend talking; they are like the ice monsters, frozen in time, but ever ready to pounce on him.

The wintry vision that Flanagan offers his readers is also somewhat akin to a traditional Japanese sensibility, derived from Buddhism, of the fleeting and illusionary nature of life. The belief that all is just an illusion is not without its comforts, for it helps us to survive the unbearable. This point is beautifully made in Flanagan’s descriptions of the POW camp in Thailand.

Evans runs a tiny operating theater in the camp, where he tries as best he can, with primitive instruments contrived from stolen bottles, tubes, and knives, to patch up the broken bodies of men who are almost sure to die anyway. He knows it is “a triumph of magical thinking,” but as he explains to one of his orderlies: “It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible…. It’s believing in reality that does us in every time.”

At times, illusions offer an escape from sights and feelings that are simply too painful to endure. When the men are forced by the Japanese to watch as Darky Gardiner is beaten to a pulp with bamboo poles, the fruity smell of the jungle reminds some of them of sherry and family Christmas lunches:

And though they would carry the memory of Darky’s beating to their own deaths six days or seventy years later, at the time the event seemed no more within their control, and therefore no more in their consciousness, than a rock falling or a storm breaking. It simply was, and it was best dealt with by finding other things to think of.

In the end everything passes, even memories. The sites of the Burma railroad, where so many men died horribly, are now a tourist destination, recommended by guides as a place to see in Thailand. Souvenir stalls now stand where prisoners were once flogged to death. Nakamura is tormented by a conflict between the idea of himself as an honorable man who did his imperial duty and those ice monsters that haunt him. So “with the same iron will that had served him so well in the Siamese jungle…he resolved that he must henceforth conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man.”

That, too, is a way of forgetting, a willful illusion, probably the preferred method of more than a few former torturers, not only in Japan. Yet some Japanese have chosen the harder road of trying not to forget. One of them, a man named Sato, tells Nakamura a gruesome story, based on something that actually happened, about live vivisections performed by Japanese doctors on captured American airmen. Nakamura does not want to hear such stories and henceforth dodges Sato’s company.

Dorrigo Evans doesn’t quite forget his past. But he is anguished by the emptiness of the present: “He could never admit to himself that it was death that had given his life meaning.” Only poetry offers him some sort of redemption. A delegation of Japanese women comes to visit him in Tasmania to apologize for what was done during the war by their fellow countrymen. As a token of their contrition they present Evans with a book of Japanese death poems, which he gratefully receives, since he believes that “books had an aura that protected him….”

One poem strikes him with peculiar force, a haiku written on his deathbed by the eighteenth-century poet Shisui. The entire poem consists of one character, a circle, “a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle—antithesis of the line.”

It is only on his own deathbed that Evans discovers one more layer to Shisui’s one-character poem, the imperative to move forward regardless, follow one’s illusions, and so to carry on the circle of life. His last words are: “Advance forward gentlemen. Charge the windowsill.”

The novel doesn’t end with these last words, however. There is a kind of coda in the form of a flashback. Soon after Darky Gardiner has drowned in the latrine, Evans receives a letter from his wife, Ella, giving him the sad, but false, news that Amy has died in a tragic accident. Once more the image of flying particles is conjured up. Evans stares helplessly into the flame of a kerosene lamp:

He looked at the light, at the smuts. As though there were two worlds. This world and a hidden world that was a real world of wild, flying particles spinning, shimmering, randomly bouncing off each other, and new worlds coming into being in consequence.

He picks up a book, a romance of true love. But the final pages are missing, presumably ripped out by another prisoner to use in the latrine. He puts the book down, and walks out into the darkness to relieve himself in the bamboo urinal. On his way back to his hut, he notices, half hidden in the black mud, a crimson flower. He shines his lantern on “the small miracle,” bows in the pouring rain, straightens up, and “continued on his way.”

It is an arresting, if somewhat mawkish image, this crimson flower in the mud. But it is entirely in keeping with an extraordinary novel that is never sentimental about war, let alone about tests of manhood, but a little bit about poetry.