14 Ramadhan 1437
I was surprised, though I really shouldn't have been, at just how moved I was by some of the episodes in the final third of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Just after writing and uploading yesterday's post I read the sequence in which a number of the survivors visit a café selling fish and chips in Hobart that one of those who didn't make it out of the jungle kept talking about when in the camp. For no good reason the men smash the windows of the café, but then return next day to apologise to the Greek owner and offer to pay for the damage. He himself has lost his son in the war and invites the men to eat with him. They do so, and tell tales into the night. In many ways it's a very simple sequence, yet it seems to point at ways of finding meaning in what might otherwise be meaningless suffering. But it doesn't give you those meanings. Reading it knocked me sideways.
As did a number of other such moments. Which makes me wonder where the power comes from. It's not just because of the extremity of the pain that lies at the centre of the novel - the suffering of the POWs building the pointless railway. In fact, these men are not always at the centre of the action, or of the various moral concerns of the novel. Despite having Dorrigo's story at its centre, which as a story turns out to encompass more than just what happened to him during the war and what that did to him - as evidenced by the extraordinary sequence in which he drives into the bush fires around Hobart to save his family - the novel is prone to a kind of digressive fracturing in which the fates and consciousness's of a wide range of its characters are involved. My guess is that the writer felt obliged to do his material justice (Flanagan's father was a POW on the Death Railway) and the various explorations set out on had to be somehow integrated into the fabric of the novel.
Actually I'm not sure this really works. I'm left with a sense of a novel of brilliant fragments that don't entirely cohere but are felt deeply enough to be somehow necessary. The only one that didn't quite work for me was the sequence detailing the love affair between the protagonist and Amy before he goes to war, but even this was worth it for the wonderful section dealing with the melancholy end of Amy's life. I suppose the one thing holding the novel together is its concern with the act of remembering and how that might give some kind of meaning to things. That idea is hugely urgent in terms of the need to remember, in some sense memorialise, what happened in the Thai jungle to the men set to build the railway, but it also can be seen to apply to the need to give other lives meaning before they're lost in the wreckage of time.
Spent parts of yesterday and today cleaning the various books at Maison KL. Yesterday I timed the breaking of the fast to coincide with completing the first half of the cleaning but today I find myself with a good hour or so left before a well-earned cuppa can assuage the thirst built up just by wielding a vacuum cleaner. A useful reminder of how a bit of real work can make the fast that bit more of a struggle.