Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the tale of Australian prisoners of war building the Burma railway under such brutal conditions in WWII. At one point in the story, one of the most resilient and charismatic prisoners suffers a horrendous beating from the Japanese guards, and his fellow prisoners are forced to stand at attention and witness it the relentless cruelty. That night, the badly injured Darky Gardiner slips into the primitive camp latrine and drowns. After the war, some of his comrades are out for a night of drinking in Hobart, Tasmania, and they come upon Nikitaris’ fish shop. They remember how Darky used to carry on about how much he loved to take his girlfriend to Nikitaris’ for a night out, and how someday he wished to return and free the fish from the tank in the window. Remembering their friend, they break the window, scoop out the fish into slop buckets, and free them in the harbor. The next evening, remorseful for the damages they caused, they visit the fish shop to pay for the repairs, and then something unexpected happens. When they go to explain their actions to Mr. Nikitaris, the old man senses something and brings them up short.
“He was your cobber?”
Not only does Mr. Nikitaris refuse their money, but he feeds them and gives them wine, and soon enough, they realize that the old man lost a son in the war in New Guinea in 1943. And then they are a just a group of men sharing their losses without speaking directly about them, sharing their company long into the night.
“It was hard to explain how good that fried fish and chips and cheap red wine felt inside them. It tasted right. The old Greek made his own coffee for them—little cups, thick, black, and sweet—and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made. Everything was strange and welcoming at the same time. The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good, and, for as long as that night lasted, thought Jimmy Bigelow, there was nowhere else in the world he wished to be.”
The scene is an exquisite example of a profound sense of honor—brothers-in-arms honoring the memory of a fallen comrade, an old man honoring their loss, a group of wounded men honoring his loss in kind, and all of them finding some solace together in the deep meaning of what they have suffered and lost.