Use of Poetry in Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The title of Robert Flanagan’s novel The Deep Road to the Far North is what Japanese soldiers used to call the “Death Railway” to Burma made by Allied POWs under slave conditions. From the novel, it seems like an name given in earnest as this feat was intended to extol the Emperor and spread Japanese culture as exemplified in Basho’s travelogue of the same name. How could this travelogue written in a refined combination of haiku and mannered prose by a Zen Buddhist Japanese author who sought eternity in nature in the later stages of his life and who composed his celebrated haiku during spontaneous moments of union with reality be used to justify a crime against humanity?

Have any of the Imperial soldiers met The Emperor? Who is the Emperor to these soldiers? “The Emperor” in this novel is a literary creation and fixed pattern that is exclusionary and was used to justify any crime that stands in the way of the military objective. In the Christian sense, Emperor worship here is clearly a form of idolatry. It makes the idolater a slave to the image and, by during so, estranged from the reality.

Basho and the other poetry in this book has the same function. When a Japanese soldier wants to recite a poem before executing a POW, he falters because he cannot remember the lines, the pattern. Poetry, such as Basho’s, that was a spontaneous expression of a vision of eternity in nature had been turned into an “object” or a fixed pattern. As such it was treated as an idol against the experience and intention of Basho. A counterexample used in the book is a death poem by Shisui, which is simply a brushstroke of a circle. This poem cannot be turned into a fixed pattern because it is illustrative of an ongoing process. Like Basho, I think this is what Flanagan wants to approach: a description of a human life’s passage in this inevitable process without any fixed patterns, or easy narratives, obscuring reality.

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude starts with what Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember as he faces the firing squad–“that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That beginning sentence clues us in to the strategy of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bold and telling details are presented to frame the passions, play, sadness, quarrels, wonders, and conflict of daily life. By design, inevitably these episodes circle back and illuminate those details. Discovering ice was the happiest moment of his life. He fought wars upon wars out of arrogance and to spare him from the crippling solitude that afflicted him and the whole Buendia family. As he faces the guns, he thinks of that time when he was free from solitude in whatever form. On “that distant afternoon” the family learns of the death of Melquiades, a gypsy who introduced their landlocked town to the wonders of the wider world.

If the Colonel before the firing squad is an event at the center of the novel, Melquiades and his parchments encircle and preside over the novel as a whole. All this was inlaid in just the first sentence.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The novel is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Buendias, a family who led a pack of trailblazers to a new territory inland and founded a town Macando, nestled in the swampy rainforest somewhere in South America, which flourishes for a while. In addition to the foreshadowing details, the progeny of the first in line, Jose Arcadio Buendia and Ursula, have names of the previous generations. The progeny exhibit similar patterns as their namesakes, as if those names clued us in to a selfish gene that had to manifest itself. Much has been made about this novel’s magical realism.

Before reading this novel, I was initially wary of it. However, it works because ghosts of family members that live in the house, a girl rising up to Heaven, rain for more than four years, and flying carpets of the gypsies, don’t draw attention to themselves as different from given facts and because this magic isn’t uniformly good or bad. This magic seems to be an expression of desires through time that had been percolating in the minds of the characters-letting them loose into the natural world adds texture.

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By Pedro Villalba Ospina

One Hundred’s story has military campaigns, adventures, colonial exploitation and extermination and a devastating, revolting picture of decay and oblivion. But any of these isolated would not amount to much but for how Garcia Marquez marshals all these details of the family’s daily life. He spins these through the reader’s mind until the incantatory, blazing end when the saga wraps onto itself-the details and stories illuminating each other become one–and the axle of the wheel of time collapses.

Book Review: 9/10: Fabulous, rich, wonderful trip into the magic and terror of daily life