Australian novelist Richard Flanagan has always known the words san byaku san ju go, which are the Japanese words for the number 335, his father’s number as a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW). "I’ve never not known them," says Flanagan, who famously inscribed his 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North with the words ‘For prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)’.
His father not only survived as a POW on the Burma-Siam Railway (also called the Death Railway for its horrific living and working conditions, which killed more than one lakh workers) but lived until the age of 98. Archie Flanagan died on the very same day his son finished the novel, which was hailed by philosopher AC Grayling, chair of the Man Booker judges, as "a magnificent novel of love and war."
In turns harrowing and poetic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North revolves around the story of surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who is haunted by the memory of a lost love and of his experiences as a POW on the Death Railway. It takes its name from the 17th century travel narrative by the legendary Japanese haiku poet, Basho, a work which Flanagan loves and acknowledges as one of the high points of Japanese culture.
"But if that’s so, my father’s experiences as a Japanese POW on the Death Railway was one of the low points of Japanese culture. I wanted to write a book about all that this had come to be in my life, because growing up as my father’s son didn’t mean simply that I absorbed his stories or that I reflected on his experience. It was that, to some extent, that experience passes on, as these traumas tend to with human beings."
Being "a child of the Death Railway" is a strange and potent legacy for the 53-year-old author. Flanagan hails from "a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world" and he describes how his experiences "had swelled up inside me and it felt like it was beginning to choke me. The only way I could make sense of it was to write this book.
But I didn’t want it to be a book of judgment or accusation and I felt the best way of doing this novel was to use the forms, tropes and influences of Japanese literature to inform it, because then it would necessarily demand of me that I acknowledge that murder, hate and horror are buried as deep without our heart as beauty, love, kindness and goodness.
Often these things are much more closely entwined than we’d care to think, and by naming it The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I wanted to acknowledge that this beauty, this darkness, are both the essence of us as human beings."
Indeed, the novel has been widely praised for the humanity it gives to Japanese and Korean guards on the Death Railway and is suffused with poetry from west and east. But there’s no denying it also took Flanagan down his own narrow road of private torment during the 12 years it took to write it.
"I didn’t so much write five versions of the novel as write five different novels," he says. "Each one failed and I would then burn the manuscript, and so the years passed. Then I realised my father was growing old and frail and that, for no logical reason, I needed to finish the book before he died or I might never finish it. Equally illogically, I recognised that if I didn’t finish it I wasn’t sure if I could ever write another book."
That he did complete this powerful tale of love, horror and beauty and went on to win the 2014 Man Booker prize with it is still something of a shock, albeit a very welcome one to Flanagan, who says, "I never expected to win, it was such a marvellous shortlist."
But his Man Booker win in the year it was opened to all writers in English has been celebrated in both his home island and a wider Australia, where Flanagan is as beloved for his passionate advocacy of Tasmania’s forests and for his eloquent stance on social issues as he is for some six international-award-winning novels, including his Commonwealth Prize-winning, Gould’s Book of Fish, The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Wanting.
In his acceptance speech too, he revealed to a wider world what his countrymen have long known him to be: an eloquent and generous teller of stories, both on the page and off it. Flanagan, it has to be said, is a man who can disarm you with a single sentence, floor you with a heartfelt aside.
Yet he is quick too, to credit his own great love of and facility with words, to his father. "I gained from him this sense of how extraordinary the written word is, how transformative, how it is not separate of life but this most marvellous aspect of life itself, and it was something of that, which I wanted to capture in the novel."
He is also an eloquent advocate for the novel’s future: "I think what defines us as a species is our ability to define the world though story and novel are perhaps the supreme expression of our capacity for story.
When you write a novel you’re actually part of a great spiritual aesthetic and intellectual tradition, and I don’t think those things are so easily destroyed or ended because of that largeness and," he adds, "because they allow us to come closer to certain truths for which we have very few tools to otherwise comprehend."
From HT Brunch, January 4, 2015
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