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.