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:
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.
rationale for our reading group is contained in an essay I wrote for
Reading Week in June 2007 and sent to Priya (but never
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.
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
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.
dates for the next readings were fixed as follows:
Sep 24, 2016, 5:30 pm – The Gropes (Priya &
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:
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
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
novel is dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”, the
identification number of Richard Flanagan’s father.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
1, Ch 9 – Contemplating the Line, and sleeping with a book, a book
of Japanese death poems
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.
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
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
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
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.
Section, Ch 13 – Dorrigo Evans rescues his wife and children from a
Tasmanian wildfire, even as his wife contemplates their empty
Tasmanian Bushfire in the Lake Repulse-Meadowbank area
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.
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.
Section, Ch 4 – Ella's love for Dorrigo is not requited, but she
remains the devoted wife and mother
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
“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.
straight out judged Dorrigo to be an 'unkind man.' She said 'Ella chose to be
a doormat and he treated her so badly.'
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
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.
thought that the bonding among the men by the horrific experiences of
the war contributed in some measure to their rupture from women.
1, Ch 2 – Dorrigo finds Amy (Amie, Amour, Amante) direct, wild,
unsettling; something passes between them
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
In this volume there's a poem called Love Song of the
Son of Prufrock which begins
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,
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?
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
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.
was the pain, the hunger, the burials, the sickness. But he could
still remember the The Last Post, he had to play so often.
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.
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
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.
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.”
can still see the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at the Choeung Ek
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
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.
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
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
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.
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'
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
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?
2, Ch 3 – Tiny cracks a fat in the POW camp while asleep
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.
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
It was in her unfaithful
arms he found fidelity to some strange truth of the passing nature of
for the Diligent Reader
two death poems - they could be haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or any other
short form you choose. Here are the responses:
wheels of life turn
long road comes to an end
the new carriage. Begin
The silken robe slips, falls
turns into night, blue to black,
eyelids droop, shut forever
The spots on Enzo's coat,
rounds on the mango stump
endless circle of life
Life, fuelled by hopes
other things hope escapes.
after the arrival
knows, this life is temporal.
deeply invests. Ignoring
very fact: Death is lurking.
Why we fear Death? Cause it is cold,
Though obvious, yet Bold?
has the whole life to prepare
death. We look for ways to steer
course. Until Death wins over!
still, on a ridge,
between life and death:
to cross the bridge?
grip of fear
tightening of the chest —
liquid release …
way is bright and shining —
I am here still.
than a feather,
from the wants of life,
from space and time,
desires, no yearnings,
from the womb of this world,
fly to see
it be resurrection
a life of perfection?
past persisting, the present prolonging,
future uncertain …
answer not found,
nigh to the end,
I see shortly
Great one at Judgement,
reading the list of my sins and good deeds?
the balance tilt in my favour?
I be saved by the decree?
I did what was right,
now I wonder!
then, seems pernicious now—
how is sin assessed?
this act sinful or that?
the ground of justification?
suffering, and misery
my broken realisation.
fear the engulfing fire,
dread that chokes;
Almighty will lead me
to the Garden of Eden.
Section 1, Ch 9 –
Contemplating the Line, and sleeping with a book, a book of Japanese
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.
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.
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.
Everything’s forgotten in
the end, Bonox. Better we live now.
Bonox Baker seemed
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
On dune and headland
sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of
Is one with Nineveh and
Judge of the Nations,
spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we
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
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
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
There’s the atrocities in
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
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
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
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
Even if we die, Bonox Baker
said, it shows what became of us.
You’ll need to live,
then, Dorrigo Evans said.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Your flower, Dorrigo Evans
He had no idea what the
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.
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
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
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
I worried I had gatecrashed
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.
She smiled broadly, as
though some difficult bridge had been crossed.
I rather liked shoelaces,
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
A horse. That’s not
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
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 all I know, he
said. That’s about all anyone needs to know.
That’s not a school
It’s sort of lonely,
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
Hard? he replied. Not
really. We only had to suffer. We were lucky.
What does that music mean?
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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.