Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a difficult book. Not difficult in the way that I find Joyce difficult, but rather difficult in that it defies any coherent understanding. It’s wilfully ambiguous in style and content, switching between sentimentality and brutal realism. Hope is offered, grasped, lost, regained, and jettisoned but no importance is attached to any of these actions beyond the responses that are imagined by others. Truth and meaning are constructed and deconstructed and the process of building and tearing down is overgrown by history’s blind march.
‘For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only.’
But this vision is not simple nihilism (though it often appears to be). Ersatz feeling gives meaning for a moment before being collapsed, but the reality of that feeling remains. The tensions are left unresolved but because no resolution is possible they dissolve anyway, leaving both readers and characters to wonder why the events mattered at all.
The closest thing this novel resembles is the absurdism of Beckett or Camus, although there are many parallels that might be drawn between the protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and Kundera’s philandering existentialist surgeon Tomáš in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The characters are as Braudel described the history of events: ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs’. They are passive observers of their own lives, distant from their actions and indifferent to their outcomes. But into this void Flanagan teases us with Auden’s ‘ironic points of light’. The ruggedly named Dorrigo, three-quarters of the way into the book, becomes the beige sounding Alwyn (much to Michael Hoffman’s irritation it seems), but the transformation is never explained and within a few pages he turns back into Dorrigo. It’s magical realism without the magic: disconnection and chance aren’t part of some unseen cosmic order, they just are.
‘The world is, he thought, it just is.’
Recast in this absurdist light, The Narrow Road to the Deep North gives both Hoffman in the LRB and Craig Raine in the TLS the slip. As AC Grayling replied to Hoffman in the LRB, ‘one would fail a first-year for missing the point so comprehensively’. The mawkish passages, the Hollywood coincidences, and the conceptual incoherencies aren’t symptoms of a bad writer trying to write a good book, they’re signs of a good writer in an absurd world.
All of this brings me to Raymond Geuss’s realism. Geuss defines realism as ‘the attempt not to be deceived, the attempt not to engage in wishful thinking about the world: to see the world as it is’. This describes both Dorrigo’s and Flanagan’s struggle precisely because what is presented is indeed an ‘attempt’ to see the world as it is. To attempt something in a life or in a novel implies failure. Were Dorrigo and Flanagan to see the world without deception there could be no story – it would be the objective history of a fictional life. The drifts into sentimentality are necessary departures from their attempts not to engage in wishful thinking. So too is the incoherence necessary to realism. Langer claimed that the greatest mistake a historian could make is ‘to construct a neat, logical pattern when in actual fact everything was confusion and contradiction’. For Flanagan too, such neatness is incompatible with the attempt not to be deceived.
Flanagan’s attempt to glean a philosophy (and I don’t mean that negatively, all philosophy is an attempt) and Geuss’s attitude towards those in political philosophy who succumb to wishful thinking is summarised by the only explicit joke in The Narrow Road:
‘A prophet in the middle of the desert tells a traveller who is dying of thirst that all he needs is water. There is no water, replies the traveller. Yes, the prophet agrees, but if there was you would not be thirsty and you would not die. So I will die, says the traveller. Not if you drink water, replies the prophet.’
So, to Flanagan’s own question, ‘what reality was ever made by realists?’, he answers: a desert without prophets.