For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.
After every page I read, I wondered how I could go on. The brutality with which the prisoners were treated in a Japanese POW camp during World War II was almost more than I could bear. Yet, Richard Flanagan’s writing is so compelling it was impossible to turn away.
I finished the book late last evening, and I was unable to sleep for most of the night. The images of ulcerated sores and amputations, lice and filth, shit-running streams of mud and one gray rice-ball for lunch whirled in my vision. Underneath it all was a tender beauty which I will not soon forget.
The prisoners became family as they endured their imprisonment. One small rice ball was shared among two after a prisoner slipped and dropped his. The men banded together as men should, regardless of difference in age or strength; they suffered identically and silently vowed to be courageous as one.
More significant to me, though, was a parallel story to the one involving the camp led by a Japanese Colonel who knew he must preserve his honor by building a railroad from Siam to Burma under any condition. This parallel story was of Dorrigo Evans, the doctor who loved Amy with the red camilla in her hair.
Why is it that the loves which are felt most passionately are destined to be crushed? We marry who we marry, and make peace with what is proper and solid and right. But the one with whom our soul is most intricately linked is never the one with whom we can live.
I don’t know why that is.
I don’t think Flanagan proposes an answer, either. He just tells us of characters whom we feel we know, and the sorrows we feel that we, too, have endured, with a master’s hand.
Some favorite quotes:
“Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”
“It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity (Virgil’s Aeneid) that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books–an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.”
“The day their talk turned to him and Amy was the day their private passion would have transformed into public tragedy.”
“…love does not end until all its power is exorcised in misery and cruelty and obliteration as much as in goodness and joy.”
“Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.”