The Narrow Road to the Deep North is based on a true story,” explained Han Bleichrodt via a video link from Alicante. A Lithuanian lost his wife in a prison camp during the war. He travelled throughout Europe searching for her before giving up and eventually moving to Australia, where he built a new life with a new partner. But then suddenly, ten years later, he saw his wife, the love of his life, standing on Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. The question then is: do you throw everything away for her? The Lithuanian chose for his new life, and Dorrigo Evans, the book’s main character, also walked on. “It grabbed me by the throat when I read it,” stated Han Bleichrodt. “I thought he’d choose his former wife.”

“In my research I often see the consensus effect: we expect people to be like us, but we differ more from each other than we think. That’s what’s great about reading books.” It broadens your view of how people behave. “In The Narrow Road to the Deep North I was really rather upset that Dorrigo Evans didn’t choose for love.”

A dead end

Dorrigo Evans was a prisoner of war who, in 1943, was forced by the Japanese army to work on the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. Bleichrodt’s grandfather was also a prisoner of war and worked on that railway. The Japanese invaded Indonesia a year after his father was born there. His grandfather was then deported to a labour camp, while his grandmother was sent to a Japanese camp with the children.

“Everything converged in this book for me,” stated Bleichrodt. “It shows how complex people are.” In the camp, prisoners of war had to make their beds in exactly the same way, and years after liberation, it was unacceptable for the former prisoner of war that his children made their beds in a different way. “I found that mutual incomprehension to be the most beautiful passage.”

It’s those small things that can turn a whole life upside down, he continued. “All the certainties we have built up are then worthless. You see that now with the pandemic, but also within my family. My grandparents thought they’d built a great life in Indonesia. But when the Japanese invaded, they lost everything. In the Netherlands, nobody wanted to hear their story. That was also incomprehension,” Bleichrodt referred to his favourite passage.

Reading habits:

Most recent book: Esperando a nadie by Félix Guerrero and La reina oculta by Jorge Molist

Favourite genre: fiction, ‘a great story that gets you thinking.’

Most important motivation: “Great dialogue and beautiful sentences so you take something with you every day.”

Number of books per year: “I’m currently only reading books written in Spanish, so I’m a bit slower. Around five per year I think.”

Another path

Bleichrodt notes that he is perhaps more of a psychologist than an economist. The labour market in the 1980s is what made him choose a study with the prospect of a job. Initially, he found macroeconomics interesting, but his interests gradually shifted to human decisions; the micro level. “Things can go in any direction. I could hardly predict what I liked best.”

As a young man of 18, he studied Economics at EUR, and more than 35 years later he’s still associated with the university. “It’s now time to pass on everything I’ve learned to the younger generation. While teaching I noticed I talked so much about behavioural economics that I decided to write a book on it. I write two or three pages every day.”

A new perspective

In Alicante, where he also has a position, Bleichrodt founded a book club for scientists to offer some support to PhD students. They discuss a scientific article every month. “That way I avoid becoming a grumpy old man and it’s also good for PhD students to know what us oldies make of the articles. When you’re young, you’re mainly busy mapping out your career and publishing as much as you can. Now, I just hope I can leave something behind. Ultimately colleagues are people you have spoken to and who pass on ideas.”

Han Bleichrodt is professor of behavioural economics at Erasmus School of Economics. His research focuses on decisions under uncertain conditions and over time. He has a particular interest in decisions about health.