The months and days are the travellers of eternity. Matsuo Bashō
These are the opening words of the 17th Century Japanese poem, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō. It is the story of a poetical pilgrimage, a journey he took from Edo (modern day Tokyo) into the northern heartlands of his country in order to visit the poetical and spiritual shrines and to renew his own writing. Bashō is considered one of the great Japanese poets and The Narrow Road is regarded as his masterpiece.
I was moved to look this up because I am reading the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan. It is a fantastic book, as you would expect given it won the Man Booker prize, and much of it deals with the building of the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War. If you are British you may immediately think of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, but this book is told from the viewpoint of Australian prisoners, in fact the author’s father was one of the survivors. It is seen as one of the greatest atrocities of the war, and although it is impossible to know how many died, estimates reckon that over a quarter of a million men were forced to work as slaves in horrendous conditions and on starvation diets, resulting in around 100,000 deaths.
The section of the book that chilled me most so far is where two of the Japanese officers discuss Bashō’s poetry, agreeing on their cultural superiority and then going on to discuss the correct way of beheading a prisoner and the importance of regular practice.
It is easy to cast the Japanese as monsters, but there is no innocence in war. The bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed at least 130,000 people, the bombing of Hamburg in Germany killed at least 40,000. People, Countries, Races are not either ‘good’ or ‘evil’, real life is far more complex than that. The novel explores the complexities of human existence against the backdrop of the war. It isn’t necessarily an easy read, but it feels like a worthwhile one.