Richard Flanagan: war, the Booker and a life more circular

The Tasmanian’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about Australian POWs doomed to build the Burma Death Railway, is the first great work to win the Booker since 2001

 

Not even the smallest irony is ever lost on Tasmanian Richard Flanagan. He wrote history books before turning to the risky art of fiction.

“The history books sold. They were my apprenticeship, for writing I mean, but history . . . ” He takes the first of many pauses.

Flanagan is “just about all talked out” since winning this year’s Man Booker Prize for his Homeric sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He thinks human experience is not about history. “It’s about time and memory. The past is there but life is circular. I have a strong sense of the circularity of time.”

"When I was a young man, I went to England for a bit and studied history (he was a student at Oxford University) “I was struck by the way Europeans see history as something neatly linear. For me it’s not that; it’s not some kind of straight railway. Where I come from, we live in a circular way and definitely see things – life, experience – as a series of circles.”

Flanagan’s warm personality asserts itself within 30 seconds of his first words. Since the publication in 1994 of Death of a River Guide, it was obvious that his was a rare, marvellous talent. Flanagan should have already won the Booker six years ago, for Wanting, a hauntingly beautiful meditation on colonisation and so much else, and before that for his phantasmagorical tour de force Gould’s Book of Fish (2001). And it seems a shame to leave out the very serious claims of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, which was published in 1997.

One war, all wars

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the first great novel to win the Man Booker Prize since the last great Australian novel – Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – did in 2001. But Flanagan’s is a singular voice. In Dorrigo Evans, the central character of his powerful novel about one war, all wars, he has created a flawed Everyman haunted by the guilty burden of having survived a true hell: the shared experience of Australian POWs doomed to build the Burma Death Railway between 1942 and 1943.

The Booker win, says Flanagan, was “the last thing I was expecting”. He quotes more freely from literature than most academics. He is a bit of a mystery and very matter-of-fact, although not at all defiant when explaining how his novel was turned down by every major literary publisher with the exception of Chatto & Windus.

“I am delighted. It’s such an honour,” he says of the prize. “I never expected it, but to tell you the truth, it’s great to get the money. It will . . . come in handy.”

Flanagan’s writing can be highly cerebral as well as devastatingly simple. He has mastered the clarity of ambivalence; his conversation is both beautiful and blunt. He sees the poetry in the ordinary but he is practical and aware of the hard grace of life.

“We grew up with this sense of an unhealed wound, an incommunicable wound. It was always there. My father was a happy man, but he also had such suffering, anxieties that would surface.”

Flanagan, the fifth of six children, is descended from victims of the Famine. “My ancestors came from Co Roscommon [and were] transported to Van Diemen’s Land for stealing food.”

Before that, in the late 18th century, there had been a Whiteboy. “He was a political prisoner. All that Irishness had kept itself to itself; it was a cherished memory if also a large forgetting.”

Flanagan’s sense of Tasmania is that familiar one, a kingdom unto itself but a part of Australia. “Many countries, one nation; Tasmania is much poorer than the rest of Australia. It is a lot like Ireland – it’s about the same size, an island. Land is so important. It’s hard to escape Tasmania.”

How does he feel to have written a book that achieves so many things, including a sense of what it means to be human? Flanagan refers to his understanding of human experience as a series of circular images.

“Memories that just flash across the mind, like the way we see Evans as an old man, a boy, a surgeon trying to save dying men. It is a series of pictures, like life.”

Our conversation moves to Claudio Magris’s classic Danube (1986). “Oh, that’s a great book,” sighs Flanagan, who, quick as a flash, refers to having been told that Magris had written a book about Tasmania, Blindly, in which the king of Iceland decides to explore Tasmania.

“And I had thought that I knew everything about Magris, and here there is a book about Tasmania. I have just got it but haven’t read it yet.”

It’s good to be alive

The Narrow Road to the Deep North makes the reader experience what it is to be alive and inspires overwhelming emotion. The horror of the war sequences is tempered by the sardonic exchanges and remarkably adroit characterisation.

“It was through the men and the gallows humour . . . That’s how my father told us so much. He spoke about his experiences, but not the horrors. He was born in 1914, so was 29 when he arrived at the camp to start working on the railway. The younger men had the better chance of survival. He told us funny stories; these characters were real men, although I have invented them.”

Feelings, not research, propel the book. “No, I didn’t do a lot of research; writing is hard; research is easy. You can spend hours, days, years writing and get nothing. I was 12 years trying to write this book, trying to get it right, rewriting. You can spend a day in a library and feel: great, I’ve done a day’s work. But it’s only research, not writing.”

For Flanagan, the reader is all. “The reader makes the book. I can write about the mud, the smell, the heat, the blood, the rotting bodies, the animals watching it all . . . but it is the reader who brings the pain, the emotional response, the empathy, the sorrow, the pity. I saw with those early books, the ones you mentioned, Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping . . . they hardly got reviews, but they got readers, and that is what you need to make a book live.

“It’s often what you leave out. That’s where the reader steps in with their understanding of what you have written.”

He pauses and offers this analogy: “You know the way Spielberg in Schindler’s List (the 1993 film version of Australian Thomas Keneally's Booker prize-winning novel Schindler's Ark, 1982) handles every important moment with a close-up? Whereas Polanski in The Pianist uses long shots to show the devastation in the way we really see things, at a distance? And Polanski had real-life experience of the death camps. That’s the way you try to do it: show the reader the long shot and allow them to provide the meaning.”

Flanagan loved his father, who died at 98 on the day the novel was completed. “He was one of Weary Dunlop’s mythic 1,000. I met Dunlop; he was very old by then, in his 80s, but fantastic, a real-life hero, too fantastic for a novelist to invent. A character has to be plausible.”

The writer’s duty

Having written the novel his father – and he – needed written, how does it leave the novelist feeling? Was he ever resentful of a burden, a sense of duty?

“I didn’t see it as a burden, but it was something I had to do. It is cathartic. I feel free, liberated. I’m able to write again. I’m halfway through a new novel, and there’s another one.”

Earlier this year, both Flanagan and Tim Winton were shortlisted for the major Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. Neither of them won. He laughs. “Yes, well, you know. Prizes . . . ”

Flanagan, Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Winton, Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Elizabeth Harrower, Helen Garner . . . Why is Australian writing so good?

“That’s a fair question, considering our publishing industry only got going in the 1960s. It’s because we think differently, we see the circularity of life . . . I guess.”

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is published by Chatto & Windus

 

*This article has been ammended on 23.11.14

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