Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Robert Flanagan — The Narrow Road to the Deep North, May 14, 2016


This reading was a double occasion, first, to read from the novel by Richard Flanagan, and second, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of our reading group's founding. The event was held in the new home of our dear hostess for the day and faithful member, Priya. Here is a picture of the eats that followed the reading:


The leading spirits at the beginning were Paul George ('Bobby') at whose bookshop, Just Fiction, the sessions used to be held; Indira Outcalt whose enthusiasm for literature kept it going with the participation of several keen Kochi readers of English literature; and the late Manjoo Menon, grand seigneur of matters cultural in Kochi, whose legacy lives on through the good works he started. Here is a news item from The Hindu newspaper about the early origins of the group by our own Priya:


Priya expressed her desire to 'be a part of this wonderful group' in a note she wrote to Joe on June 21, 2007, saying how excited she was from talking to the members. Later I wrote to her:
KRG is just a way to enjoy Litt with other folk who also enjoy; and to benefit from the enthusiasm others show when they come well-prepared. I added the 'diligent reader exercises' only so we could have fun by attempting something that stretches us (me too), and thus builds a few literary muscles we may never otherwise have known we had.


A rationale for our reading group is contained in an essay I wrote for Reading Week in June 2007 and sent to Priya (but never published):
When you read you think, when you think you derive your own illumination, and when you express it, you have the pleasure of your communication added to the writer's work, as a tribute.


We concluded the meeting with the hope the group will continue even though the composition must needs change over time. By recording the events in the blog we will capture our thoughts so they do not go poof! into the air and be forgotten, but will live as a reference for the future. And when the time comes Joe will give up authorship of the KRG blog to another willing soul! 

The Tenth Anniversary group


Full Account and Record of the Reading on May 14, 2016

The Rs. 300 annual contributions were collected from all the members so Thommo could deposit it and pay the Club Rs. 1,500 in the month of June as fees for using the CYC Library for the next 6 months.

The dates for the next readings were fixed as follows:
Fri Jun 3, 2016, 5:30 pm – Poetry at CYC
Fri Jul 1, 2016, 5:30 pm – Wuthering Heights (Talitha & Pamela)
Fri Aug 5, 2016, 5:30 pm – Poetry at CYC
Fri Sep 24, 2016, 5:30 pm – The Gropes (Priya & Thommo)

The Sep 24 date is to accommodate Joe & KumKum who will return from abroad on Sep 14. The readers agreed to use Dropbox for sharing documents, and will send the email ID by which they installed Dropbox software on their devices to Joe – presumably these are the the same as the standard e-mail IDs they use.

Present: Pamela, Talitha, Priya, KumKum, Shoba, Saras, Sunil, Thommo, Joe, Gopa, Preeti
Guests: Geetha, Miriam, Satish, Shahnaz, Abbas, Sunila
Absent: Ammu (doctor's appointment), Kavita (away abroad)
Canine: Enzo

More pics from the gathering:














1. Sunil
Sunil introduced the novel that had been chosen by him and Zakia. The title is taken from a nature journal (called haibun in Japanese) maintained by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

Oku no Hosomichi was based on a journey taken by Bashō in 1689 with his traveling companion Kawai Sora from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to the northerly interior region known as Oku

Basho's exquisite poems in the haiku form have been delighting the hearts of readers for hundreds of years. 

Basho portrait now in the Itsup Museum, Ikeda City, Osaka

Flanagan's father, Arch Flanagan, was a POW who worked on the Line, the Siam (now Thailand) to Burma railway line built largely with slave labour by Australian POWs. 

The Thai–Burma railway stretched some 415 kilometres from Nakhon Pathom in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) showing camps for POWs who built it

The doctor, Dorrigo Evans, is modelled after a war-hero, Lt.Col. Edward Dunlop, who looked after the men in his charge when they were undergoing beatings, malnutrition, and disease in the POW camp whose men were press-ganged into working on the railway line by which the Japanese hoped to conquer territory all the way to India.

Allied POWs toil on the Thai-Burma railway at Hellfire Pass in Thailand

The novel is dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”, the identification number of Richard Flanagan’s father.

Entwined with the story of POWs is a love story, a few details of which were taken from what his father told him of a Latvian immigrant into Australia who searched for his wife lost in Europe during the Second World War, and then concluding she was dead, finally married and settled in Tasmania. But one day walking on a bridge he crosses his wife going in the opposite direction, but is paralysed by fear and can't detain her. In the book this love takes the form of Amy (with nicknames: Amie, Amour, Amante) whom Dorrigo meets by chance in a bookstore. The earth moves, but he is unaware of the tremor she has caused in his life until he's shipped off to war. The red camellia she wears at the first encounter is on the cover of the book.

Flanagan made five attempts altogether to write this novel, and the book that came out ultimately is one in which the Japanese commanders are rendered with some human qualities, and have the gentler side we know from traditional Japanese culture. It is a stark warning about how the constant propaganda of nationalism can render a people aggressive and lead them astray into intolerance of other nationalities and ethnicities, glorifying themselves above others. Japanese xenophobia had its counterpart in Nazi Germany; these are signposts and warnings about what could happen in India too.

After the war the bugler Bigelow was told by his daughter that it must have been hard. He replies: “Hard? We only had to suffer. We were lucky.”

This is a profound statement, and stems from something Flanagan's father told him: to go to war as a soldier means for most of them that they have to inflict suffering, and then, if they survive the war, have to live with the fact that they acted as agents of evil. These POWs were spared that mental trauma, of having to live with their infliction of pain and punishment on other people, often innocent.

Flanagan says his father died the day the novel's final draft was ready; he had been following the son's labour over time. In the final writing Flanagan turned himself into a monk in isolation for about six months in a remote area. As a prelude to writing the novel Flanagan went to Japan and met some of the Japanese commanders and guards, including 'Goanna,' the Korean commandeered by the Japanese and trained to beat the POWs. Flanagan says in an interview:
Everyone suffered in that death cult. No one’s life had any value. The Australians’ lives had no value, but neither did the Koreans’ and neither did the commanders’. It was an utter perversion of humanity and everyone became trapped in it. I still find it hard to comprehend: more people died on that railway than there are words in that book. More people died on that railway than died at Hiroshima. And yet really outside of Australia, it’s been forgotten.

Though the book is dark, there is an erotic sex scene, humour, some loving and smooching, reflections on poetry and death, and a thrilling fire rescue at the end. It is also a commentary on the comradeship that keeps men together in trying circumstances. There is a very distressing passage in which Darky Gardiner (an aboriginal to judge from his monicker) is beaten repeatedly and severely. No reader had the heart to read aloud from that section.

This is a book that truly deserved the Man Booker award! It was Flanagan's sixth novel. In his life he has been a journalist and written for leading magazines such as the New Yorker, Le Monde, etc.. He is also a staunch friend of the environment and through his writing was instrumental in preventing a paper mill from being set up in a sensitive area of Tasmania. He has also directed two films, one of which was nominated for the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Section 1, Ch 9 – Contemplating the Line, and sleeping with a book, a book of Japanese death poems
Sunil read a passage in which Dorrigo Evans ponders the significance of the Line and has a dream of Charon ferrying the dead across the river Archeron (Styx). He recalls Virgil's words from the Aeneid Book 6:
From here the path to the underworld is the road that leads to the dismal waters of Acheron. Here a whirlpool boils with mud and immense swirlings of water, spouting up the slimy sand of Cocytos.
A dreadful ferryman looks after the river crossing, Charon : appalling filthy he is, with a bush of unkempt white beard upon his chin, with eyes like jets of fire; and a dirty cloak draggles down, knotted about his shoulders. He poles the boat, he looks after the sails, he is all the crew of that rust-coloured wherry which takes the dead across--an ancient now, but a god's old age is green and sappy. [translation by C. Day-Lewis]


In the next part Dorrigo narrates how after the war the Japanese would come bearing apologies and gifts, one of them being a book of death poems (jisei) written in anticipation of death by Japanese poets.



2. Thommo
Section 2, Ch 12 – To burn, or not to burn the sketchbook which Rabbit Hendricks made to document the horrors and tortures of the Japanese POW camp
Thommo's passage highlighted the debate between Dorrigo and one of the men, Bonox Baker, about what should be done with the sketchbook of POW Rabbit Hendricks when he died of cholera. The norm was to burn all of the victim's belongings which might cause the contagion to spread. But Baker argues strongly that Hendricks' sketchbook documents and preserves a memory that should not be lost. 

Sketch of a beating of on the Line. POW Murray Griffin was forced to kneel on a bamboo log, cutting into his legs, while two guards beat him. He was forced to hold a heavy metal bar above his head

Dorrigo counters that everything is forgotten in the end; not so, says Baker, quoting a line from Kipling's poem
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Memory is true justice, argues Baker and Hendricks when he was alive was convinced that his pictures would live on, no matter what happened to him. Dorrigo thinks all this will be forgotten even as the suffering of the slaves who built the Pyramids of Egypt are now forgotten, so why bother? But finally Baker's tenacity wins and the sketchbook is saved from the flames.

3. Shoba
Last Section, Ch 13 – Dorrigo Evans rescues his wife and children from a Tasmanian wildfire, even as his wife contemplates their empty marriage

Tasmanian Bushfire in the Lake Repulse-Meadowbank area

Dorrigo Evans makes a heroic rescue, driving through a wildfire in Tasmania in a borrowed car which gets completely battered in the process. In the heat of the rescue his wife Ella has time to contemplate that she knows very little about him, and their marriage never took off. Two people trapped in a silent marriage.

KumKum, champion of neglected women, butted in at this point to say she would like to read her passage next for it continued the description of Ella as a victim in their marriage.

4. KumKum
Last Section, Ch 4 – Ella's love for Dorrigo is not requited, but she remains the devoted wife and mother
Flanagan seems to write with care about Ella, a woman who sympathises with the problems faced by her doctor husband at the hospital. There is repeated mention of the slight upturn of her nose at the tip, as if that were a baneful flaw. Ella loved Dorrigo with the fine devotion of a good wife, yet he finds many things besides the upturned nose to irritate him. 

“If she hoped for the same love from Dorrigo, and if she was disappointed in her hope, she did not feel its absence as a reason not to love him.” 

There was some debate about whether she was aware that Dorrigo made out with other women. 'Women know somehow', Joe said, but is there a positive indication in the novel that Ella was aware of his adulterous behaviour? Saras said, Yes.

Gopa straight out judged Dorrigo to be an 'unkind man.' She said 'Ella chose to be a doormat and he treated her so badly.'

Zakia quoted another passage about Dorrigo's treatment of Ella:
His moods came upon him now in a more unpredictable and uncontrollable fashion and were sometimes vile. A lion in winter, he hurt Ella frequently with his words, his indifference, his rage at her affections and industry. He shouted at her after her father's funeral for no good reason or even a bad reason. He wanted to love her, he wished he could love her; he feared he did love her but not in the way a man should his wife—he wanted to hurt her into the same realisation, a recognition that he was not for her, to elicit a response that might break him out of his sleep. He waited for a denouement that never arrived. And her hurt, her pain, her tears, her sadness, rather than ending his soul's hibernation, only deepened it.

That such a pliant and devoted woman as Ella could not make Dorrigo forget Amy (the only woman who had his number) is the depressing source of the common misery in their marriage. Gopa said he might have been a leader of men, but he was no good in personal relationships.

Thommo observed that Dorrigo recognises Amy by her quirk of pinching the top of her blouse between her thumb and forefinger:
She was always inadvertently tugging at her blouse, pulling it up over her cleavage, as though if she didn't her breasts might at any moment escape.

Saras thought that the bonding among the men by the horrific experiences of the war contributed in some measure to their rupture from women.

5. Shoba
Section 1, Ch 2 – Dorrigo finds Amy (Amie, Amour, Amante) direct, wild, unsettling; something passes between them
It's the big red flower in her hair that becomes the fetish marking Amy forever in Dorrigo's imagination (that, and the minor matter of her blouse pinching!). The flower was a stolen camellia. 


The words that passed between them in the bookstore were irrelevant: a horse Rowley, a poet Max, Penguins. Perhaps Flanagan is referring to a recital in the bookstore by the Australian poet Max Harris who wrote a volume of verse titled The Angry Penguin


In this volume there's a poem called Love Song of the Son of Prufrock which begins
The militant's daughter's smiles are free
but aloof as the flight of the wild turkey;
Oh I guess her smiles aren't meant for me,
Fiddle-de-dum, fiddle-de-dee.

The bookstore scene shows you need an author in the background to record the trivia of lovers' first meeting – when the die is cast and the brand of love burned into their hearts, unbeknownst.

Someone commented that you fear being vulnerable and run away, as happened to Dorrigo: he longed for her to leave. KumKum chimed in: that's what I wanted to do – meaning what?

6. Gopa
Last Section, Ch 14 – Jimmy Bigelow, the POW bugler, at age ninety-four becomes a free man by cleansing his mind of the horrors of war
The passage shows Jimmy Bigelow the camp's bugler gradually expelling from his mind the dread experiences of the POW camp.
His mind slowly distilled his memory of the POW camps into something beautiful.

Gone was the pain, the hunger, the burials, the sickness. But he could still remember the The Last Post, he had to play so often. 

We see how necessary is the sanitisation of memory in order for a warrior to survive as a normal person.
At the age of ninety-four he was finally a free man.


7. Saras
Section 3, Ch 3 – The Korean guard whom the Australian POWs called Goanna, the lizard, for his cruelty, muses on the beatings he administered. He knows the war crimes trials by the victors of war will engulf all of them
We see through the experience of the Korean guard of the POW camp, himself captured and collared by the Japanese, that everyone is a victim. The commanders themselves are at the receiving end of strict orders to satisfy impossible targets for building the Line.

Beating was common in the Japanese Army as a way of instilling discipline; what the soldiers received, they gave in good measure when they had power over the enemy. Sunil said the rag which covered Bigelow's bugle was like a lungi. The Allied authorities caught Col. Kota, one of the commanders at the end of the war. As a modern analogy, Sunil and Saras drew attention to the murderous regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. “The combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pol_Pot )

You can still see the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.


The passage reveals that only the Emperor of Japan, the source of the authority by which all the cruelties were committed, will be spared. Everyone else will be judged guilty according to their actions; the excuse 'we were only following orders' will not save them from indictment. 

It is worth reflecting that in war only the victors hold war crimes trials, whereas they too were often just as guilty of war-crimes by deliberately killing civilians in large numbers: take the fire-bombing raids by the US Air Force over Tokyo lasting several weeks with napalm and white phosphorus, in which more civilians died than in Hiroshima by the atom bomb.

8. Priya
Section 1, Ch 17 – Dorrigo's vampire act as he kisses & sucks the balls of blood on Amy's thighs during an outing on the beach
This passage enacts a scene which Priya for some reason called 'yucky'; but what the author has done is to write an erotic passage deliberately with attention to detail. The red of the blood and the red of the camellia incarnadine Dorrigo's thoughts of her forever. It was a passage Joe confessed he had missed (speed reading has its shortcomings).

Sunil said the act of beheading with a sword which the Japanese practised is described in the book as an art form. If you read chapter 16, the first section, you get an idea of the skill involved in manual decapitation by sword.

9. Zakia
Section 3, Ch 12 – Dorrigo muses on love in the company of his uncle Jack's wife who thinks love is a 'note that comes back to you'
It's a strange conversation to have with your cuckolded uncle's wife. About love. He's taking her, and she is giving of herself freely, and both are having a good time – not that the uncle doesn't know. But the idea that love is an echo that comes back to you in a certain setting when music is playing, is another way of saying love means all sorts of things to people, and it is not always romantic swooning in each other's arms like R&J  a fairy tale if ever there was one.

Sunil said if Dorrigo had found Amy and married her he wouldn't have been a philanderer. Hard to say. But did Ella know about Amy, asked Thommo? Saras adduced evidence for her affirmative answer. Thommo thought the evidence could have been explained away by Dorrigo visiting his uncle, rather than his uncle's wife. Well, women know somehow, said Joe. Intuition?

10. Joe
Section 2, Ch 3 – Tiny cracks a fat in the POW camp while asleep
The passage exploits the everyday events in the POW camp to extract a large dose of ribald humour. It is like the comic relief you find in Shakespeare's tragedies, where the humour is often couched in double entendres. That the author has such a range made Joe admire his craft. As someone said he is giving a whole picture of life, not delivering a one-sided, grim, accusatory diatribe.

Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” A reader drew attention to this line from chapter 18 of section 1. It's about Lynette Maison, his uncle's wife, whose failings he found 'most admirably human.'
It was in her unfaithful arms he found fidelity to some strange truth of the passing nature of everything.

Exercise for the Diligent Reader
Write two death poems - they could be haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or any other short form you choose. Here are the responses:

Priya
1.The wheels of life turn
The long road comes to an end
Behold the new carriage. Begin

2. The silken robe slips, falls
Day turns into night, blue to black,
The eyelids droop, shut forever

3. The spots on Enzo's coat,
Concentric rounds on the mango stump
This endless circle of life

KumKum
1. Life, fuelled by hopes
rushes forth...
Stalls at Death.
Among other things hope escapes.

2.Soon after the arrival
One knows, this life is temporal.
Yet, deeply invests. Ignoring
the very fact: Death is lurking.

3. Why we fear Death? Cause it is cold,
Mysterious? Though obvious, yet Bold?
One has the whole life to prepare
For death. We look for ways to steer
off course. Until Death wins over!

Joe (3 haikus)
Poised, still, on a ridge,
Balanced between life and death:
When to cross the bridge?

Lethal grip of fear
A tightening of the chest —
Then liquid release …

Look! how beautiful!
the way is bright and shining —
But I am here still.


Pamela
1. The Release
Like starlight
Across the universe,
Lighter than a feather,
Softer than snowflakes,

Free from the wants of life,
Freed from space and time,
No desires, no yearnings,
Released from the womb of this world,
I fly to see
An eternity....
Will it be resurrection
To a life of perfection?

The past persisting, the present prolonging,
The future uncertain …
The answer not found,
Drawing nigh to the end,
The puzzles perplex….

2. The Judgement
Will I see shortly
The Great one at Judgement,
Angels reading the list of my sins and good deeds?
Will the balance tilt in my favour?
Shall I be saved by the decree?

Then I did what was right,
But now I wonder!
Ideal then, seems pernicious now—
But how is sin assessed?
Is this act sinful or that?
What’s the ground of justification?
Pain, suffering, and misery
Are my broken realisation.

I fear the engulfing fire,
Eternal damnation,
A dread that chokes;
The Almighty will lead me

Back to the Garden of Eden.

Readings
1. Sunil
Section 1, Ch 9 – Contemplating the Line, and sleeping with a book, a book of Japanese death poems
FOR GOOD REASON, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line . 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 . Or perhaps, in the end, even this is inadequate: Dorrigo Evans was increasingly haunted by the thought that it was only the men who died on the Line . He feared that only in them was the terrible perfection of suffering and knowledge that made one fully human.
Looking back down at the railway pegs, Dorrigo Evans saw that there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable. Simple facts explained the pegs. But they conveyed nothing. What is a line, he wondered, the Line? A line was something that proceeded from one point to another—from reality to unreality, from life to hell—‘breadthless length’, as he recalled Euclid describing it in schoolboy geometry. A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the procession from life to death. A journey to hell.
In his Parramatta hotel room half a century later, Dorrigo Evans dozed, he tossed, he dreamt of Charon, the filthy ferryman who takes the dead across the Styx to hell for the price of an obol left in their mouth. In his dream he mouthed Virgil’s words describing the dread Charon: frightful and foul, his face covered with unkempt hoary hair, his fierce eyes lit with fire, and a filthy cloak hanging from a knot on his shoulder.
On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age. A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound. He read late of an afternoon. He almost never looked at whatever the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object—as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams.
His book that night was presented to him by a delegation of Japanese women, come to apologise for Japanese war crimes. They came with ceremony and video cameras, they brought presents, and one gift was curious: a book of translations of Japanese death poems, the result of a tradition that sees Japanese poets compose a final poem. He had placed it on the darkwood bedside table next to his pillow, aligning it carefully with his head. He believed books had an aura that protected him, that without one beside him he would die. He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.


2. Thommo
Section 2, Ch 12 – To burn, or not to burn the sketchbook which Rabbit Hendricks made to document the horrors and tortures of the Japanese POW camp
... one of the pyre makers walked up to Dorrigo Evans with Rabbit Hendricks’ sketchbook.
Burn it, Dorrigo Evans said, waving it away.
The pyre maker coughed.
We weren’t sure, sir.
Why?
It’s a record, Bonox Baker said. His record. So people in the future would, well, know. Remember. That’s what Rabbit wanted. That people will remember what happened here. To us.
Remember?
Yes, sir.
Everything’s forgotten in the end, Bonox. Better we live now.
Bonox Baker seemed unpersuaded.
Lest we forget, we say, Bonox Baker said. Isn’t that what we say, sir?
We do, Bonox. Or incant. Perhaps it’s not quite the same thing. So that’s why it should be saved. So it’s not forgotten.
Do you know the poem, Bonox? It’s by Kipling. It’s not about remembering. It’s about forgetting—how everything gets forgotten.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Dorrigo Evans nodded to a pyre maker to set the bamboo alight.
Nineveh, Tyre, a God-forsaken railway in Siam, Dorrigo Evans said, flame shadows tiger-striping his face. If we can’t remember that Kipling’s poem was about how everything gets forgotten, how are we going to remember anything else?
A poem is not a law. It’s not fate. Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
The pictures, Bonox Baker said, the pictures, sir.
What about them, Bonox?
Rabbit Hendricks was convinced that, no matter what happened to him, the pictures would survive, Bonox Baker said. And that the world would know.
Really? Memory is the true justice, sir.
Or the creator of new horrors. Memory’s only like justice, Bonox, because it is another wrong idea that makes people feel right.
Bonox Baker had a pyre maker open the book to a page that showed an Indian ink drawing of a row of severed Chinese heads on spikes in Singapore after the Japanese occupation.
There’s the atrocities in here, see?
Dorrigo Evans turned and looked at Bonox Baker. But all Dorrigo Evans could see was smoke, flames. He could not see her face. There were severed heads that looked alive through the smoke but they were dead and gone. The fire was rising at their back, its flames the only living thing, and he thought of her head and her face and her body, the red camellia in her hair, but as hard as he tried now, he could not remember her face.
Nothing endures. Don’t you see, Bonox? That’s what Kipling meant. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.
There’s the tortures here too, see? Bonox Baker said.
He had turned the page to a pen-and-ink sketch of an Australian being beaten by two guards. To a watercolour of the ulcer ward. To a pencil drawing of skeletal men labouring, breaking rock on the cutting. Dorrigo Evans found himself growing irritated.
Better than a Box Brownie camera, old Rabbit was, Bonox Baker smiled. How the hell he got hold of the paints I’ll never know.
Who’ll know what these pictures will mean? Dorrigo Evans said tersely. Who’ll say what they’re of? One man might interpret them as evidence of slavery, another as propaganda. What do the hieroglyphs tell us of what it was like to live under the lash, building the pyramids? Do we talk of that? Do we? No, we talk of the magnificence and majesty of the Egyptians. Of the Romans. Of Saint Petersburg, and nothing of the bones of the hundred thousand slaves that it is built on. Maybe that’s how they’ll remember the Japs. Maybe that’s all his pictures would end up being used for—to justify the magnificence of these monsters.
Even if we die, Bonox Baker said, it shows what became of us.
You’ll need to live, then, Dorrigo Evans said.


3. Shoba
Last Section, Ch 13 – Dorrigo Evans rescues his wife and children from a Tasmanian wildfire, even as his wife contemplates their empty marriage
He was steering with one hand, while leaning over grabbing burning sticks from the back seat with his other—his surgeon’s hands he had always tried so hard to protect—and tossing them out the smashed window.
As the 1948 Ford Mercury, green paint blackened and blistering, screeched and slithered its way back down that burning mountain, Ella looked across at Dorrigo, the fingers of his left hand already swelling into blisters the size of small balloons, so badly burnt he would later need skin grafts. Such a mystery of a man, she thought, such a mystery. She realised she knew nothing about him; that their marriage had been over before it began; and that it was not in the power of either of them to alter any of this. On what were now three tyres and one disintegrating wheel rim, the Ford Mercury careered round a long corner and, through the smoke, they finally glimpsed before them the sanctuary of the police roadblock.
I think this may be the last time Freddy Seymour invites you for lunch, said Ella Evans.
And in the back seat the three now silent, soot-smeared children absorbed it all—the choking creosote stench, the roar of wind and flame, the wild rocking of a car being driven that hard, the heat, the emotion so raw and exposed it was like butchered flesh; the tormented, hopeless feeling of two people who lived together in a love not yet love, nor yet not; an unshared life shared; a conspiracy of affections, illnesses, tragedies, jokes and labour; a marriage—the strange, terrible neverendingness of human beings.


4. KumKum
Last Section, Ch 4 – Ella's love for Dorrigo is not requited, but she remains the devoted wife and mother
ELLA COULD NOT fathom living without loving. She had been loved by her parents and loved them deeply in return. Her love was simply what she was, looking for objects to pour itself out upon. She listened to Dorrigo’s problems at the hospital, she grieved with him when he lost a patient. She sympathised with his struggles with the idiotic bureaucrats who, he said, were going to be the death not just of him but of medical care in Australia, with the surgeons who disapproved of his methods.
She had matured into a striking older woman, her raven hair more remarkable now dyed, dark-skinned, admired by other women for her elegant calm and style, her compassion for others and her easygoing nature. Whether it was her full figure or her radiant complexion, she had an appearance of vigour that belied her age. Men liked the way she looked, the way she moved, the sight of her dark legs in summer, and the way she smiled with such attention when the men talked about themselves. The only blemish on her beauty was a slight upturn at the tip of her nose, which at certain angles made her face somehow look almost a caricature. Most people never really noticed it. Over the years though Dorrigo saw it more and more, until sometimes—first thing of a morning or when he arrived home from work—he could see little else of her.
She so thoroughly believed in Dorrigo and Dorrigo’s life that she repeated his opinions as if they were her own, and she did it in a way that always frustrated him. Damned bloody bureaucrats, she would say, they’ll be the death of more than just patients. Or she would start going on in some detail about the medicaπl ignorance of some stupid surgeons. And as he listened, all he could see was the slight upturn of her nose, the way it made her face which once had seemed very beautiful rather comical, and he thought how she wasn’t really that beautiful at all, but rather odd-looking. And every time he heard her repeat something he had said a month or a week ago, he’d be astonished at both the banality of the opinion and her loyalty in repeating something that he could now see was trite and stupid. And yet had she dared suggest that what he was saying was banal and ridiculous, he would have been furious. He wanted her agreement and, having got it so unconditionally, he despised it.
With their children she would agree also, much to Dorrigo’s irritation.
It is the parent’s job to parent, he would say to her, and their job to live.
And having said that, he would try to hide his frustration, and would have to look away from her face so he would not focus on the tip of her nose.
But I agree with you, she would say. I couldn’t agree more. If a parent doesn’t parent, what are we here for?
Dorrigo, the children, her friends, and her wider family—they all existed for her as a way of divining the world. It was a far larger and more wondrous place with them than it was without them. If she hoped for the same love from Dorrigo, and if she was disappointed in her hope, she did not feel its absence as a reason not to love him. The problem was that she did. Her love was without reason and would never yield to reason. Though it longed for requital, her love in the end did not demand it.
But when he was away at night, she would lie awake, unable to sleep. And she would think of him and her and feel the most overwhelming sadness. She may have been a trusting woman but she was very far from a stupid one. She repeated his words and echoed his opinions not because she was without thoughts of her own, but because her nature was one that wished to live through others.


5. Shoba
Section 1, Ch 2 – Dorrigo finds Amy (Amie, Amour, Amante) direct, wild, unsettling; something passes between them
I saw you come into the bookshop, she said, smiling.
Afterwards, if asked to say what she looked like, he would have been stumped. It was the flower, he decided finally, something about her audacity in wearing a big red flower in her hair, stem tucked behind her ear, that summed her up. But that, he knew, really told you nothing at all about her.
Your eyes, she said suddenly. He said nothing. In truth, he had no idea what to say. He had never heard anything so ridiculous. Eyes? And without meaning to, he found himself returning her stare, looking at her intently, drinking her up as she was him. She seemed not to care. There was some strange and unsettling intimacy, an inexplicable knowledge in this that shocked him—that he could just gaze all over a woman and she not give a damn as long as it was him looking at her.
It was as dizzying as it was bewildering. She seemed a series of slight flaws best expressed in a beauty spot above her right lip. And he understood that the sum of all these blemishes was somehow beauty, and there was about this beauty a power, and that power was at once conscious and unconscious. Perhaps, he resolved, she thinks her beauty allows her the right to have whatever she wants. Well, she would not have him.
So black, she said, now smiling. But I’m sure you get told that a lot.
No, he said. It wasn’t entirely true, but then no one had ever said it exactly how she had just said it. Something stopped him from turning away from her, from her outlandish talk, and walking out. He glanced at the ring of men at the far end of the bookcases. He had the unsettling sensation that she meant what she said, and that what she said was meant only for him.
Your flower, Dorrigo Evans said. It’s—
He had no idea what the flower was.
Stolen, she said.
She seemed to have all the time in the world to appraise him, and having done so and found him to her liking, she laughed in a way that made him feel that she had found in him all the things most appealing in the world. It was as if her beauty, her eyes, everything that was charming and wonderful about her, now also existed in him.
Do you like it? she asked.
Very much.
From a camellia bush, she said, and laughed again. And then her laugh—more a little cackle, sudden and slightly throaty and somehow deeply intimate—stopped. She leaned forward. He could smell her perfume. And alcohol. Yet he understood she was oblivious to his unease and that this was no attempt at charm. Or flirting. And though he did not will it or want it, he could feel that something was passing between them, something undeniable.
He dropped the hand behind his back and turned so that he was facing her square-on. Between them a shaft of light was falling through the window, dust rising within it, and he saw her as if out of a cell window. He smiled, he said something—he didn’t know what. He looked beyond the light to the ring of men, her praetorian guard waiting in the shadows, hoping one out of self-interest might come over and take advantage of his awkwardness and sweep her back.
What sort of soldier are you? she asked.
Not much of one.
Using his book, he tapped the triangular brown patch with its inset green circle sewn on his tunic shoulder.
2/7th Casualty Clearing Station. I’m a doctor.
He found himself feeling both slightly resentful and somewhat nervous. What business did beauty have with him? Particularly when her expression, her voice, her clothing, everything about her, he understood as that of a woman of some standing, and though he was a doctor now, and an officer, he was not so far removed from his origins that he did not feel these things acutely.
I worried I had gatecrashed the—
The magazine launch? Oh, no. I think they’d welcome anyone with a pulse. Or even without one. Tippy over there—she waved a hand towards the other woman—Tippy says that poet who was reading his work is going to revolutionise Australian literature.
Brave man. I only signed up to take on Hitler.
Did a word of it make any sense to you? she said, her look at once unwavering and searching.
Penguins?
She smiled broadly, as though some difficult bridge had been crossed.
I rather liked shoelaces, she said.
One of the group of her swarming admirers was singing in the manner of Paul Robeson: Old horse Rowley, he just keep on rolling.
Tippy roped us all into coming, she said in a new tone of familiarity, as though they’d been friends for many years. Me, her brother and some of his friends. She’s a student with the poet downstairs. We’d been at some services officers’ club listening to the Cup and she wanted us to come here to listen to Max.
Who’s Max? Dorrigo asked.
The poet. But that’s not important.
Who’s Rowley?
A horse. That’s not important either.
He was mute, he didn’t know what to say, her words made no sense, her words were irrelevant to everything that was passing between them. If the horse and the poet were both unimportant, what was important? There was something about her—intensity? directness? wildness?—that he found greatly unsettling. What did she want? What did it mean? He longed for her to leave.


6. Gopa
Last Section, Ch 14 – Jimmy Bigelow, the POW bugler, at age ninety-four becomes a free man by cleansing his mind of the horrors of war
THE OLD ARE filled with remorse, Jodie Bigelow’s father once told her. Her father. Jimmy Bigelow was never quite Jodie’s dad. He seemed absent through not only her life, but much of his own. He worked as a mail sorter and never seemed interested in rising beyond it. One day in high school she had to do a project on Anzac Day, and she had asked her father to tell her what the war had been like for him. He said there wasn’t really that much to tell. This and that. When she grew insistent, he went into his bedroom and returned with an old bugle. He wiped the mouthpiece and made a few farting noises with it to make her laugh. Then he found some real notes. He dropped the bugle, coughed, swelled up, raised his head in a martial manner entirely unfamiliar to his daughter and played the ‘Last Post’.
That’s it?
That’s all I know, he said. That’s about all anyone needs to know.
That’s not a school project, Dad.
No.
It’s sort of lonely, Jodie said.
Jimmy Bigelow thought on this, and then said he guessed it was, but it had never felt that way. It felt the opposite.
Jodie had browsed some books about the POWs.
It must have been hard, she said.
Hard? he replied. Not really. We only had to suffer. We were lucky.
What does that music mean? she asked.
It’s a mystery, he said after a while. The bigger the mystery, the more it means.
Jodie’s mother died of leukaemia when Jodie was nineteen. Jimmy Bigelow survived her for another twenty-eight years. He did not take himself seriously and came to believe the world was essentially comic. He enjoyed the company of others and found in his life—or in this way of looking at life—much at which he and others marvelled. There was a growing industry of memory all around him, yet he recalled less and less. Some jokes, some stories, the taste of a duck egg Darky Gardiner gave him, the hope. The goodness. He remembered when they went to bury little Wat Cooney. He remembered how Wat loved everyone; how he was always waiting at the cookhouse until the last man made it in, no matter how late, keeping some food for him, making sure, no matter how little there was, every man was fed something. Looking over his grave, no one had wanted to be the first to throw a sod. He did not remember that Wat Cooney had died during the march north to Three Pagoda Pass, nor any of the march’s attendant cruelties. For him, such things were not the truth of it.
His sons corrected his memories more and more. What the hell did they know? Apparently a lot more than him. Historians, journalists, documentary makers, even his own bloody family pointing out errors, inconsistencies, lapses, and straight-out contradictions in his varying accounts. Who was he meant to be? The Encyclopaedia bloody Britannica? He was there. That was all. When he played ‘Without a Song’ on his cassette player that too was a mystery, because for a moment he saw a man standing on a tree stump singing, and he felt all those things he otherwise didn’t feel; he understood all those things he otherwise didn’t understand. His words and memories were nothing. Everything was in him. Could they not see that? Could they not just let him be?
His mind slowly distilled his memory of the POW camps into something beautiful. It was as if he were squeezing out the humiliation of being a slave, drop by drop. First he forgot the horror of it all, later the violence done to them by the Japanese. In his old age he could honestly say he could recall no acts of violence. The things that might bring it back—books, documentaries, historians—he avoided. Then his memory of the sickness and the wretched deaths, the cholera and the beri-beri and the pellagra, that too went; even the mud went, and later so too the memory of the hunger. And finally one afternoon he realised he could remember none of his time as a POW at all. His mind was still good; he knew he had once been a POW as he knew he had once been a foetus. But of that experience nothing remained. What did was an irrevocable idea of human goodness, as undeniable as it was beautiful. At the age of ninety-four he was finally a free man.


7. Saras
Section 3, Ch 3 – The Korean guard whom the Australian POWs called Goanna, the lizard, for his cruelty, muses on the beatings he administered. He knows the war crimes trials by the victors of war will engulf all of them
All the same, said Choi Sang-min, a comment he made to demonstrate his fatalistic acceptance of life, but which his counsel understood as an assent to his attempt to prevent his execution and have the sentence commuted. The lawyer submitted the petition, and Choi Sang-min’s life and torment were extended by another four months.
Choi Sang-min noticed how every man at Changi conceived of his destiny differently and invented his past accordingly. Some men had point-blank denied the charges, but they were hanged or were imprisoned for lengthy periods anyway. Some had accepted responsibility but refused to recognise the authority of the Australian trials. They too were hanged or were jailed for greater or lesser periods. Others denied responsibility, pointing out the impossibility of a lowly guard or soldier refusing to recognise the authority of the Japanese military system, far less refusing to do the Emperor’s will. In private they asked a simple question. If they and all their actions were simply expressions of the Emperor’s will, why then was the Emperor still free? Why did the Americans support the Emperor but hang them, who had only ever been the Emperor’s tools?
But in their hearts they all knew that the Emperor would never hang and that they would. Just as surely as they had beaten and tortured and killed for the Emperor, the men who didn’t accept responsibility were now to hang for the Emperor. They hanged as well and as badly as the men who accepted responsibility or the men who said they never did any of it, for as they jiggled about beneath the trapdoor one after another, their legs jerked all the same and their arses shat all the same and their suddenly swollen penises spurted piss and semen all the same.
During his trial, Choi Sang-min became aware of many things—the Geneva convention, chains of command, Japanese military structure and so on—about which he had hitherto only the vaguest idea. He discovered that the Australians he had feared and hated had, in a strange way, respected him as one who was different: a monster they called the Goanna. And Choi Sang-min wasn’t displeased to learn that he loomed so large in their hate.
For he sensed in the Australians the same contempt for him that he had known in the Japanese. He understood that he was once more nothing, as he had been in Korea as a child, standing at the back of his class after being caught whispering in Korean instead of speaking in Japanese; as he had been when working for the Japanese family, where his position was worse than that of the family pet; as he was in the Japanese army, a guard, lower than the lowliest Japanese soldier. Better Kim Lee’s fate than his now. And yet some men who he knew had done far worse things than him or Kim Lee had their lives spared. How? Why? None of it made any sense.
Beating the Australian prisoners, on the other hand, had made a lot of sense. However briefly, he felt he was somebody while he was beating the Australian soldiers who were so much larger than him, knowing he could slap them as much as he wanted, that he could hit them with his fists, with canes and pick handles and steel bars. That had made him something and someone, if only for as long as the Australians crumpled and moaned. He was vaguely aware that some had died because of his beatings. They probably would have died anyway. It was that sort of place and that sort of time, and no amount of thinking made any more or less sense of what had happened. Now his only regret was that he had not killed many more. And he wished he had taken more pleasure in the killing, and in the living that was so much part of the killing.


8. Priya
Section 1, Ch 17 – Dorrigo's vampire act as he kisses & sucks the balls of blood on Amy's thighs during an outing on the beach
Dorrigo Evans threw his cigarette away and squatted down.
Excuse me, he said in a formal manner, and with a finger slid the hem of the light-blue skirt slightly up Amy’s thigh. He dabbed at the wound with a handkerchief, halted and watched. The three blood balls beaded back up.
He leant in. He put a hand around her other calf to steady himself. He could smell the sea. He looked up at her. She was staring at him with a look he couldn’t interpret. His face was very close to her thigh now. He heard a seagull squawk. He turned back to her leg.
He put his lips to the lowest blood ball.
Amy’s hand reached down and rested on the back of his head.
What are you doing? she asked in a direct, hard voice. But her fingers were threading his hair in strange, creeping contradiction. He weighed the tension in her voice, the lightness of her fingers touching, the overwhelming scent of her body. Very slowly, the tips of his lips just touching her skin, he kissed the blood ball away, leaving a crimson smear on her thigh.
Her hand remained resting on his head, her fingers in his hair. He turned into her a little more and, raising his hand, lightly cupped the back of her thigh.
Dorrigo?
The other beads kept growing, and the first began to return. As he waited for her to object, to shake her leg, to push him away, kick him even, he did not dare look up. He watched those perfect spheres of blood, three camellias of desire, continue swelling. Her body was a poem beyond memorising. He kissed the second blood ball.
Her fingers tensed in his hair. The third blood ball he swept up with his tongue, just past the shadow line of her skirt where her thigh grew thicker. Amy’s fingertips dug into his head. He kissed her leg again, this time tasting the salt of her, closed his eyes and let his lips rest on her thigh, smelling her, feeling her warmth.
Slowly, reluctantly, he let go of her leg and got back to his feet.


9. Zakia
Section 3, Ch 12 – Dorrigo muses on love in the company of his uncle Jack's wife who thinks love is a 'note that comes back to you'
Do you believe in love, Mr Evans?
It was an unexpected question. He understood he did not need to answer.
Because I think you make it. You don't get it given to you. You make it.
She halted, waiting perhaps for a comment or judgement, but when Dorrigo Evans made neither she seemed emboldened and went on.
That's what I think, Mr Evans.
Dorrigo. Please.
Dorrigo. That really is what I think, Dorrigo. And I thought Jack and me, we were going to make it. She sat down and asked if he minded if she lit up.
She never did when Jack was about and puffing like a steam train, she said, but now, well, it was sort of him and it sort of helped—him not being here and that.
Pall Malls, eh? she said, taking a cigarette out of the bright-red pack. Not Woodbines for Jack. Something a little posh to make up for all that cursing. He always was quarterflash, Jack. Quarterflash and half-cut with a fulsome woman, he used to say, what fool isn't happy?
She took a puff, put the cigarette in the ashtray and stared at it. Without looking up, she said, But do you believe in love, Mr Evans?
She rolled the cigarette end around in the ashtray.
Do you?
Outside, he thought, beyond this mountain and its snow, there was a world of countless millions of people. He could see them in their cities, in the heat and the light. And he could see this house, so remote and isolated, so far away, and he had a feeling that it once must have seemed to her and Jack, if only for a short time, like the universe with the two of them at its centre. And for a moment he was at the King of Cornwall with Amy in the room they thought of as theirs—with the sea and the sun and the shadows, with the white paint flaking off the French doors and with their rusty lock, with the breezes late of an afternoon and of a night the sound of the waves breaking—and he remembered how that too had once seemed the centre of the universe.
I don’t, she said. No, I don't. It's too small a word, don't you think, Mr Evans? I have a friend in Fern Tree who teaches piano. Very musical, she is. I’m tone-deaf myself. But one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you've thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn't believe it, Mr Evans. These two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded... right. Am I being ridiculous? Do you think that's what we mean by love, Mr Evans? The note that comes back to you? That finds you even when you don't want to be found? That one day you find someone, and everything they are comes back to you in a strange way that hums? That fits. That's beautiful. I’m not explaining myself at all well, am I? she said. I’m not very good with words. But that's what we were. Jack and me. We didn't really know each other. I’m not sure if I liked everything about him. I suppose some things about me annoyed him. But I was that room and he was that note and now he's gone. And everything is silent.
I was with Jack, he began. At the end. He was keen for a Pall Mall.


10. Joe
Section 2, Ch 3 – Tiny cracks a fat in the POW camp while asleep
The morning light, though still dim, was slowly bringing their tent into indigo relief. The rising conversation of waking prisoners abruptly halted, and all turned in one direction, looking over Rooster MacNeice's shoulder. A muted laughter rippled up the platforms, and one after another the prisoners wiped their eyes to make sure that what they were seeing was what they were seeing. Rooster MacNeice turned his head. It was the strangest, most unexpected thing ever. He sucked his whiskers backin.
Many men had begun to worry that their post-war performance would be permanently affected by the complete loss of desire that starvation and disease had brought to almost all. The doctors reassured them it was merely a matter of diet; and with that sorted, they would be fine. But still the prisoners had wondered if they would be functioning men at the end of their ordeals. None of them could remember the last erection they'd had. Some worried if they'd be able to keep their wives happy when they got home. Gallipoli von Kessler said he didn't know a bloke who'd had a hard-on for months, while Sheephead Morton claimed not to have cracked a fat for over a year.
It was, then, a most miraculous sight—as unmissable as it was remarkable—that they saw rising before them.
Old Tiny, said Gallipoli von Kessler. There he is, knocking on death's door, and he's like a bloody bamboo in the wet.
For rising up from the still-slumbering, skeletal form of Tiny Middleton—the once muscular Christian himself, asleep on his back, oblivious to all attention, happily dreaming of some sinful pursuit, his depravity unaffected by starvation and sickness—there stood, sticking up like the regimental flagpole, a large erection.
It was, they agreed, a heartening thing, no less so given how low Tiny Middleton had sunk in recent weeks. The sight was so remarkable that everyone kept their voices down as they wakened others and motioned at them to look. Amidst the low laughter, lewd jokes and general joy the sight brought, one man objected.
Is that the best we can do? Rooster MacNeice asked. Laugh at a man when he's down?
Chum Fahey observed that Tiny looked pretty up to him.
You men have no decency, Rooster MacNeice muttered. No respect. Not like the old Australians.
I'll cover him for you, Rooster, said Darky Gardiner. Picking up a large fragment of duck eggshell by his thigh, he leant across and carefully placed it atop the erect penis.
Tiny slumbered on. His hatted cock rose above them like a fresh forest mushroom trembling ever so slightly in the early-morning breeze.
It's wrong to mock, Rooster MacNeice said. We're no better than the lousy Nips if we do that.
Darky Gardiner pointed at the eggshell, which looked like a mitre cap of sorts.
He's been promoted to pope, Rooster, Darky Gardiner said.
Damn you, Gardiner, Rooster MacNeice said. Leave the poor man alone and allow him some decency.
He pulled himself up to a full sitting position, stood up and walked to where Tiny Middleton slept. Leaning up between Tiny's splayed legs, Rooster MacNeice reached out to take away what was to him a degrading
joke.
Just as his fingers closed around the eggshell, Tiny Middleton awoke. As their eyes met, Rooster MacNeice's hand froze on the eggshell, perhaps even crushed it slightly. Tiny Middleton drew himself up with a rage and an energy wholly out of proportion to his wasted body.
You fucking pervert, Rooster.
When—in humiliation and to the mockery of all, and the laughter of Darky Gardiner in particular—Rooster MacNeice returned to his place on the sleeping platform, he made a distressing discovery. On rummaging around in his kitbag for Mein Kampf to check his memorisation, he found that his duck egg—bought three days earlier and hidden in his kitbag—had vanished. He thought on that missing egg, and on the duck eggshell Darky Gardiner had placed on Tiny Middleton, and he knew that the Black Prince had stolen his egg.
There was of course nothing that could be done about it—Gardiner would deny the theft, the others would laugh even more, perhaps even enjoy the idea of the theft. But at that moment he hated Gardiner—a man who had stolen off him and then used that theft to humiliate him— with an intensity and savagery that far exceeded any ill feeling he had towards the Japanese. And hate was everything to Rooster MacNeice.

2 comments:

paul said...

TREMENDOUS efforts...rhis blog carries the signature of a WORDPASSIONATE MAN..
WE STARTED THIS READING GROUP with TWO LIVES...by Vikram SETH...which incidentally should be called TWO AND A HALF LIVES...according to one review..because it..the book is also about Vikram SETH himself.

Good lucK..MY best wishes..to KRG

Management - Learning from Experiences by Reflection said...

Thanks for the words, Bobby.

I was happy to use one of the remarkable verbs WS invented (in Macbeth), 'incarnadine' (Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red)

The red of the blood and the red of the camellia incarnadine Dorrigo's thoughts of Amy forever

Thanks for the wishes too ...

- joe