Some scenes in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are hard to read and impossible to forget. Based on real events, Richard Flanagan’s award-winning novel tells of the experience of Prisoners of War on the infamous Thai-Burma death railway, in raw and horrifying detail.
One of the passages that is particularly difficult to erase from my mind is when Flanagan wrote of live dissections (or ‘vivisections’) of prisoners, and the image of a still beating heart placed on scales, making them tremble. This after the soldier, has lain down before the barbaric surgeons who he believes will help him, as trusting as a child. Then there were brutal bashings that lasted hours, skin flaking from faces, stinking ulcers that left bone gruesomely exposed, diarrhoea running down skeletal legs and a drowning too horrible to recount.
Similarly, while Regeneration is a war book set away from the battlefield, in a convalescent hospital, there were times when I was again moved and horrified by vivid descriptions of the wartime experience. In one particularly horrific scene, Pat Barker wrote of a soldier who fell, finding himself breathing the foul contents of a rotting stomach of another soldier. Afterwards, he could not keep food down, as it continued to remind him of the stench.
Both books made me wonder at what point the depiction of painful, terrible experiences becomes too graphic, or if that point even exists. Is there a higher reason for triggering the reader’s emotions in such a way, or is recounting this kind of suffering merely a desire to read about blood and gore?
Of course, there is a level of privilege in even pondering the question, as the reader reclines with a novel in the comfort of their centrally heated homes, far from the trenches and artillery fire. On the front line, real people endured this very real pain and horror – an experience that as a society we cannot forget. And yet.
Last year, there was a debate in the Australian media about whether school texts should include warnings. Like many, I scoffed. Books were meant to move readers, make them feel the despair, pain, longing and desolation of their characters.
But, after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and while it was a wonderful, worthwhile and extremely moving novel by one of Australia’s best writers, I cannot escape the sense that some of the depictions of violence leaves too deep an imprint, such was their graphic nature.
This is not a question of whether we should read about the pain of others – we have a duty to bear witness to the worst of human history to ensure that it doesn’t happen again – but of the degree of detail we need to read in descriptions of deaths, violence and horror.
It is a strange fact that humans are fascinated by the pain of others. We desire to know the worst, even though afterwards we sometimes wished we didn’t.
It is not just books in which we can indulge in this curiosity. In many episodes, one of the most popular and highly rated series of our time, Game of Thrones, tends to finish with a shocking moment of violence. Was this the hook that kept viewers watching?
In other television shows, it tends to be the brutal murder at the beginning that draws the viewer in; a corpse splayed out on the road or in their living room.
More than once, I have heard someone who watched the movie Wolf Creek, based on serial killer Ivan Milat, say they wished they had never seen it, such was its frightening brutality. Yet, somehow, I am fascinated by and drawn to the movie. I have not seen it yet, and hope my curiosity doesn’t win out.
Similarly, although at a very different level to war or murder, psychological pain or humiliation can attract our interest. What else could explain the popularity of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, in which contestants experience public rejection every week? Or the talent shows in which the less talented are ridiculed and insulted, accompanied by cheers, jeers and jaunty music?
According to psychiatry lecturer Dean Burnett, writing for The Telegraph in the UK, a fascination with ‘grisly details’ is a symptom of the ‘excitation-transfer theory’. He explains:
“Seeing or experiencing something so visceral, so brutal, is a powerful stimulation. It’s not necessarily a good stimulation, but it is an effective one. This puts the person in a brief state of excitation, during which other stimulations can be more vivid or intense. A comparable example would be riding a roller-coaster; once you get off, you’re in that giddy, excitable state that comes from an adrenalin rush, where you feel more “alive”… It’s possible that fascination with gore and brutal details is a darker, somewhat twisted variation on this.”
Alternatively, it might come down to curiosity about what can happen to the human body. Burnett said that this curiosity could serve an evolutionary purpose, providing an understanding of what can happen to the human body, and what dangers exist.
And so, what if the absence of this pain was removed from books? Would it make them less interesting or powerful? Perhaps it would. I fear that it would make them less memorable, as it is those deep feelings of unease, sadness or even horror that tend to stay with us.
It might be that this jolt of disgust or horror is what it takes to make us take notice, and ensure that such suffering does not happen again. Bored by accounts of wars that seem so familiar, but at the same time, so remote – the detailed depictions of pain drag us out of our comfortable realities and into the darker places that the books’ characters inhabit.
In a book titled The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay said that by observing images of horror, viewers “can occasionally foresee or predict the future”, and warn others of “dangers that lie ahead.”
In the same way, horrifying or distressing stories can impact on the way we behave and respond to suffering, preventing similar events in the future. This claim is compelling and in some way makes my unease seem petty. Perhaps there is no detail of real life suffering that should not be known.
Speaking at The Wheeler Centre last week, Richard Flanagan made clear his commitment to the truth.
“The novel is one of the great forms of truth we have,” he said. “No novels have answers, but they should frame the questions we have to ask ourselves.”
Perhaps the sheer brutality of war novels does exactly that – taking us closer to the truth and framing the questions that we need to ask about how this came to be. They might include passages that I never want to read again, but they are also ones that I will not forget.