“Even in Kyoto / Hear the cuckoo cry / I want Kyoto.” This is haiku, a form of short poetry, by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. This extraordinary work expresses the poet’s affection for the city in three lines and 17 characters. There is an English novel full of such haikus. He is the winner of the Man Booker Prize “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Australian author Richard Flanagan. The title of the novel is the same as that of Basho’s travel essay.
You might think it’s a compliment to traditional Japanese literature, but it isn’t. The novel portrays the plight of the Australian prisoners of war, who were mobilized to build the “Death Railway”. The cruelty of the Japanese people is beyond imagination. Prisoners of war are beaten to death, starve and succumb to diseases. An officer changes some phrases of Basho’s haiku as he recites it: “Even in Manchoukuo / Seeing the neck / I long for Manchoukuo. It is strange to see a Japanese soldier looking at someone’s neck when he meets one who will soon be cut off by his sword.
The reason why the haiku appears in the novel is obvious. It is to oppose the beauty of haiku to madness. It was “the ideology promoted by Japanese intellectuals, religious leaders, artists, journalists and politicians of the time” that drove the soldiers mad. There was a culture that created haiku and also an ideology that dishonored it. These vicious Japanese soldiers and their puppets were the victims of this ideology. The people the author encountered were “humans”, who felt sorry for their actions and felt guilt and shame. The author’s father, who was a prisoner of war, could not recall the nightmarish memory of the past after hearing the story. It might be hard to believe, but her memory has actually been erased. Even though he did not forgive them, he was freed from the past by their humanity and their apologies. Perhaps enlightened by his father, the author does not lose faith in humanity while reproducing the ruthless violence of the Japanese military and attempts to view them with humanity rather than hatred. It is a very generous view of humans.