I read a book yesterday. Started early, finished late. At intervals I had to break off reading to gasp, get to my feet, pace around. Then I sat down and resumed reading. Again I had to stop: I couldn’t read.:
my eyes were streaming and I was sobbing. Because I am a man and men do not give into tears I composed myself, went back to the book and finished it. Unusually for me, I was reading a novel I had read before.
My fortunate path through life is paved with storybooks, so many good books, a few even demanding the accolade of greatness. This is one of the great books.
The novel fictionalises the adult life of Edward (‘Weary’) Dunlop, an Australian surgeon and ‘war hero’, that shopworn term which perplexes and burdens the novel’s central figure for the decades
that remain to him after the War. Ï met ‘Weary’ late one Saturday night after he’d launched a friend’s book. I reminded him that my father and he had been classmates at Melbourne University
Medical School sixty years earlier. I mentioned Dad’s name. The old face looked down and away from me. There was no flicker of recognition: ‘Good man…very good man,’ he said, through the
whiskey of a long night and through the passing of too many years.
The novel which gives us the life and times and war of ‘Weary’ is decidedly unromantic. He is not a hero to himself, he’s simply perplexed, reluctantly drawn to greatness which he can never fathom.
The novel is a telling of one of Australia’s important stories. Like all the great stories the epic of the Burma Railroad (‘The Line’) carries the clout of magic and the endurance of myth.
We have read the tale before in an earlier triumph of storytelling, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’.
One of Australia’s most original literary stylists is Nicolas Rothwell, the Áustralian’ newspaper’s northern correspondent. Rothwell delivered an oration recently in memory of Eric Rolls,
which was excerpted and published in the Oz a week or so ago. In the acutely elegaic piece Rothwell noted the death of the novel, lamenting exquisitely and I think romantically
on the passing of the genre into effete late middle age and irrelevance. As a keen reader of novels and of Rothwell, I read the essay in perplexity: here was a heartfelt requiem to the literary form of which Rothwell himself is a sublime practitioner. His novel ‘Belomor’ is a convincing rebuttal of his own thesis. If this were not enough to confuse and comfort me,
then ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winner, the cause of my gasping, crying, pacing, would demolish all doubt.
If I read Rothwell right it is not the novel that is dead but our capacity to hear a long story, to enter and journey and stay the distance in a world, to experience lives in their amplitude. We have become nerve-deaf, casualties of the quickening tempo of life, in particular of the crazed acceleration of information technology. I think this is what Rothwell means. I hope so. Because I travelled the Narrow Road to the Deep North, travelling to an extremity of feeling, going far out to sea into an enlargement, an expansion of my being. Mister Richard Flanagan told me a story that penetrated whatever is the deafness
of the age. He spoke to the same organs of wonder and imagination and belief that my mother and my father spoke to or read to when I was small. The same organs are alive and quivering in my grandchildren
when I tell them a story. We are, as Najaf Mazari – the Rug Maker of Mazr a Sharif – points out in ‘The Honey Thief’, ‘made of stories’. Stories are part of the protoplasm of the human. Rothwell knows this,
his writings show it.
Rothwell makes an important point, subtly and allusively as ever, but convincingly. In this continent the long story between covers is in its youth. There yet remains a task for literature to fulfill that is specific to this
country. The Australian novel is a necessary vehicle for the defining and redefining of our place here. If we are whitefella or blackfella we have a task ahead – to come to terms with our each otherness, to relate authentically to a landscape and to its stories, to Australia.
Between the covers of the Narrow Road Flanagan’s Dorrigo Evans and Darky Gardner take us a long way on that needed path. Novels such as this have the power to create new minds with new organs of knowing.