The story begins with the question: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” The question is repeated as a statement close to the end of book on page 366. In between, the concept of light continues to come up again and again. Why does light show up at the beginning of things for Dorrigo? What does light represent for him? Later Dorrigo talks about a “stolen light” from the sun on pages 357 and 394. Why is the light considered “stolen” in these pages? Does the symbolism of light change? Is light connected with sunlight, and if so, what does the sun symbolize in this context?
Dorrigo’s mother says to him on page 4: “The world is, she would say. It just is, boy.” How does this concept stay with him? What does the phrase come to mean to him? How does it help him or hurt him when he’s a POW?
It seems inexplicable to Dorrigo that he becomes a war hero. Why do other people think he deserves it? Why does he not seem to think so? Dorrigo is occasionally concerned with whether or not he is a good man. Did being a good man make him a war hero? How is he a good man outside of war? How is he not?
The book seems to divide people into those with doubt and those without it. Or maybe all the characters have doubts and simply assumes everyone else doesn’t have them. Why are doubts such a big part of the characters? Do you remember any characters that seemed sure of themselves? What role does doubt play in survival? What about its role in happiness?
Is it important to bear witness to the horror of war? Is it necessary that people who lived through war remember the horror of it? How does memory continue to affect the soldiers after the war ends? What’s more important for this novel, being happy or remembering the truth?
Why is coming back to civilization so hard for the tortured men? What are the obstacles they faced? How are those obstacles different for the Australian soldiers versus the Japanese soldiers?
Dorrigo seems to have trouble defining what Amy and he had. He seems to understand the mundane aspect of their relationship, and he seems baffled to find himself so fascinated by what would be ordinary in anyone else. Why can’t he call it love? What is love to him? What seems to be love in the novel, and by the novel’s standards, did Dorrigo and Amy have it?
Why does Amy tell Dorrigo to leave her right before he ships out? Does she intend to try to make it work with her husband? What seem to be Amy’s motivations and ambitions in life?
Many of the characters’ stories go beyond their death. The narration often talks about the deaths of the last people to have memories of the main characters, like Darky Gardiner on page 232. Why is this story concerned about the complete death of the memory of its characters? What is the author trying to get the reader to understand?
Dorrigo compares himself with Don Quixote. He often considers challenges as charging the windmill, and is often described with the adjective quixotic. (“windmill” on pages 240, 244, 301, 342, 381; “quixotic” on pages 340, 356). Notice all these examples occur late in the novel. Why does Dorrigo become a quixotic character? What does it mean to Dorrigo to be a quixotic character?
The women in Dorrigo’s life after the war seem to think he’s only “interested in the pleasures of the flesh; in truth nothing interested him less.” Why does Dorrigo sleep with so many different women? Is it only because of the love and loss of Amy? Does seeing his brother Tom with another man’s wife have anything to do with it? Does having lived through hell have anything to do with it?
Many of the characters feel guilty over Gardiner’s death. Since he might have died anyway, why do people take his death so hard? What does Darky represent to the Australian POWs? Is it important that Darky Gardiner ends up being Dorrigo’s nephew? What does that coincidence add to the story?
At the beginning in Chapter 3, Dorrigo as a child participates in an older boys’ game and wins. He felt, on page 10, that he was “joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost.” A little later, at the end of the chapter, he thought, “Nothing would ever be as real to him. Life never had such meaning again.” Why is this scene described as being the most real to him? What does this say about Dorrigo’s personality? Does this scene foreshadow or otherwise color who Dorrigo becomes?
In what ways does Dorrigo change as he grows old? In what ways does he remain the same?
What’s the importance of the obol to Dorrigo? What does the obol represent to Dorrigo before the war? What does he understand about it right before he dies? Why might the author have added an ancient symbol like this to the story?
Dorrigo has a problem with traditional definitions of goodness. On page 49, the novel tells us that “He did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” What does Dorrigo believe in if he doesn’t believe in virtue? What causes him to do good deeds then? Why does he believe that a word like “virtue” can be negative?
Nakamura seems to struggle internally about his own motivations, and on page 104, the narration explains that: “Nakamura’s own thoughts were a jungle unknown and perhaps unknowable to him.” Does Nakamura ever get to know himself? What delusions keep him from his own truth? What do you think he learns about himself when he goes to see Tommok after the war? How does Nakamura define goodness and does he ever achieve being “good”? How does his definition of a good man differ from that of Dorrigo’s? Why does he become horrible to his wife and children right before he dies?
Do the atrocities that the Japanese committed during the war make them bad guys? What does it do for the story to understand the Japanese mindset? When the second half of the novel starts to hear thoughts from the Japanese soldiers, how does this change what happened for the reader?
The title of the book comes from Basho’s travel journal, which has been read by many of the Japanese characters, as discussed here on page 113: “In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.” Based on the information in this novel, what possible reasons explain/hint at how a travel journal became a symbol for the Japanese people? Why do the Japanese soldiers find the poetry applicable to what they are doing? What is the significance of the scene where Basho’s book is found at the bedside of the man who had been dead in his house for years? What does the phrase mean for the author when it is used as the title of this book?
The word “nothing” is used 214 times in this book. Examples of the complexity of the word can be found on pages 11, 48, 92, 129, 218, 279, 282, 336, and 384. How is “nothing” used in these examples? What is the importance of “nothing” for the characters? How do the characters struggle with this abstract idea?
Choi Sang-min joined the army for the fifty yen a month salary. He was executed while his superiors went free. What did he do to deserve the label of war criminal? Was he better or worse than other Japanese soldiers at the POW camp? Was he a scapegoat? What makes someone a war criminal?
Does Dorrigo love his wife Ella at any point in his life? Does his wife deserve the distant husband she got after lying to him about Amy’s death? Why does Ella put up with his behavior? Is she a static character or do you think she’s more complex? Does she ever seem to regret the life she chose? Does Dorrigo’s rescue of his family at the end redeem this relationship?