Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel is set during the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway which was built during World War II. Flanagan lives in Tasmania and writes from an Australian point of view. Reading about another nation’s involvement in World War II provides a fresh perspective on this 20th century epoch.
It is August, 1943 and Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans’ life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, cholera and relentless beatings by Japanese soldiers. They are among the 60,000 prisoners of war, plus 250,000 coolies, driven and flogged by the emperor’s troops as they race to complete this railway for military purposes.
Flannagan exposes the reader to the Japanese culture and worldview at a time that is quite different from ours. For instance, in Japanese teachings at the time, the purpose of life was to please the emperor; further there was ultimately no distinction between life and death. These beliefs rendered the Japanese a formidable military power, in spite of their material shortcomings. To die for the emperor was considered the highest of honors and, since life and death were the same, this mind-set justified the atrocities dealt to the railway workers.
The author includes several accounts of love affairs and assignations among the books’ characters in the midst of the vivid depictions of the savage construction of the railway. Love-making, infidelity, an abortion and other titillating episodes are skillfully and explicitly described.
Flanagan is a talented writer. He creates characters and situations that make the reader feel he or she is there observing each scene.
Dr. Dorrigo Evans is very immature at times and yet, as the story progresses, he comes of age. There is a particularly dramatic moment when a pyre is built of dead POWs. As Evans watches the pyre burn he remembers Kipling’s poem “Lest We Forget” and turns to another worker to say, “Nothing endures. That’s what Kipling meant. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing.” These paragraphs provide a climactic point in the story as the surgeon struggles to make some sense out of life.
After Evans leaves the military, he enjoys adulation, wealth and fame but also finds life as a civilian meaningless. He also tries to connect to previous lovers to find meaning, but those relationships fail.
So, at the book’s conclusion, the war has ended. The railway was never completed. The loss of hundreds of thousands of lives was for nothing. And Dr. Evans’ feelings are paralyzed. He concludes that death had given his life meaning. His war experiences have irreparably damaged him—“Lest We Forget.”