In love & war

In love & war

Richard Flanagan, who was honoured for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, is the third Australian to win the coveted Man Booker Prize. Alexandra Alter writes about the author’s motivations and inspirations.

Before winning the prestigious Man Booker prize for literature, Australian novelist Richard Flanagan said that he had considered becoming a miner because he found it so difficult to make a living at his craft. 

“I’m not a wealthy man, so in essence, this means I can continue to write,” Flanagan, sipping champagne, told reporters after winning the prize at a ceremony in London.“A year-and-a-half ago when I finished this book, I was contemplating going to get what work I could in a mine in far northern Australia because things had come to such a pass with my writing, I had spent so long on this book,” he said.

The novelist won the award for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells the harrowing story of an Australian surgeon who is held in a Japanese POW camp and is forced to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway. “I grew up as did my five siblings as children of the ‘Death Railway’...I realised at a certain point if I was to continue writing I would have to write this book,” Flanagan said.

The best of the lot

Flanagan, 53, who was born in Tasmania, is the third Australian to win the prize, following Thomas Keneally and the two-time winner Peter Carey.

Philosopher A C Grayling, the chairman of the judges, called the book “a magnificent novel of love and war.” He praised Flanagan’s elegant and forceful prose and his ability to bridge “East and West, past and present, with a story of guilt and heroism.”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which takes its title from a 17th-century Japanese haiku by Basho, is Flanagan’s sixth novel. It was inspired by a painful piece of family history: Flanagan’s father was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II and forced to work as a slave labourer.

His protagonist in the novel is Dorrigo Evans, a doctor and a soldier in the Australian army who is taken prisoner on Java, presumably in 1942. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp, Evans is haunted by his love affair with his young uncle’s wife two years earlier. While struggling to save the men under his command from cholera and beatings, he receives a letter that changes his life forever.

In an article for The Sydney Morning Herald last year, Flanagan described how he had written five versions of the story before he was satisfied. In the end, he spent 12 years working on the novel. To research it, he travelled to Thailand and walked along the railway, also known as the Death Railway, occasionally carrying rocks to mimic the experience of the prisoners. In Japan, he interviewed several former guards who had worked on the railway. He also interviewed his father extensively. 

For his father

His father died just after Flanagan finished a draft of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He said he had telephoned his father earlier that day to tell him he had sent off the completed manuscript. “My father never asked me what the story was, and he trusted me to write something that wouldn’t shame the memory of the people who died,” Flanagan said. “I only realised after he died what an extraordinary gift that was. As a novelist, you have to be free. Books can’t be an act of filial duty.”

“It’s not really a war novel; it’s not about people shooting and bombs going off, and so on. It’s much more about the people and their relationships,” Flanagan adds.

The book received strong reviews in the US and Britain for its stark depictions of the brutal conditions that POWs faced, and for Flanagan’s bold decision to write, at times, from the guards’ point of view.

Speaking about the misconception that the form of ‘novel’ was dying, Flanagan said, “I think it (the novel) is one of the great inventions of the human spirit... and it is one we need because it allows an individual to speak a truth, their truth, without power and money.”

The Booker, with its cachet and prize of roughly $80,000, is Britain’s most prestigious literary award. This year’s nominees included Joshua Ferris’s novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which features a misanthropic New York dentist; Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, about a young woman whose twin sister and older brother disappeared; J, a dystopian novel by Howard Jacobson, a former Booker winner; Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, which takes place in 1960s Calcutta; and Ali Smith’s formally innovative novel, How to Be Both, which tells two stories — a historical tale about a 15th-century Renaissance artist and a contemporary narrative about a teenage girl whose mother has died — that can be read in either order.

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