Parsing the past to comprehend the present
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan learned the Japanese phrase “san byaku san ju go” when he was a child. It’s the number 335, assigned to his father as a Japanese prisoner of war on the Thai-Myanmar Railway, or Death Railway, of World War II.
Flanagan, 56, dedicated his book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” to “prisoner 335.” The internationally acclaimed novel won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. It was translated and published in China shortly afterward.
“Writing the novel, I didn’t want a single tear to stain the manuscript,” he told Shanghai Daily on a recent visit here for Australian Writers’ Week. “I didn’t want to be emotional. The story was so strong that if I wrote it emotionally, it would be overdone and melodramatic.”
Flanagan and three other Australian writers were invited to China by the Australian Embassy to hold dialogues with Chinese writers.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” took 12 years and underwent five drafts before publication.
The Death Railway was built in 1943 to supply the Japanese army. Its construction cost more than 100,000 lives due to the deadly working conditions of the forced laborers.
His father, who survived the war, died just prior to the publication of the book. Flanagan visited Japan to try to understand his father’s experiences.
“Going to Japan frightened me,” he says. “I knew I would have to control my emotions and not get upset. But I wanted to meet these people, not in the spirit of a prosecutor or a judge or a policeman. I wanted to soak up everything about them and try to meet them as fully as I could as another human being and not have emotions.”
The author summoned the courage to interview some Japanese guards from the camp. It was there he unexpectedly met Ivan the Terrible, the cruel POW camp guard of whom his father spoke in his many stories about the war.
Flanagan only realized the guard’s identity a few minutes before meeting him.
“There he was, this very gentle, gracious man of 93, who tried to answer my questions as best as he could,” he recalls. “He said he couldn’t remember the violence.”
The author asked him to re-enact binta punishment, the hard slapping of a face as swift corporal punishment in the camp.
“It gave me a greater sense of the immense sadness that happened to everybody,” he says. “I didn’t learn anything, but I gained a sense of how terrible these things were for everybody. You either had to suffer or you had to inflict suffering. If you inflicted suffering, your suffering never ended thereafter.”
Flanagan grew up in a remote, small mining town in Tasmania, a descendant of Irish convicts exiled to the island for stealing cornmeal during a famine. By the age of 3, he said he knew he wanted to be an author.
Writing at night, he financed his ambition by a variety of jobs, including river guide, construction worker and ghostwriter. Those experiences later wound into many of his works, such as his first novel, “Death of a River Guide,” and his most recent one, “First Person,” in which the protagonist is a Tasmanian hired to be a ghostwriter.
Flanagan left school at 16 but later earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Tasmania. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford in 1984.
“I never saw a crowd until I was in my 20s,” he recalls. “When I went to live in England, I was walking down a street in London and I was in this big crowd. I didn’t know anybody and I was frightened. I had never been in a place where I didn’t know people or wasn’t related to them.”
In “The Narrow to the Deep North,” he wrote: “All this was in the days when the world was wide and the island of Tasmania was still the world.”
Tasmania was permanently settled in 1803 as a British penal colony for criminals, misfits and anyone English authorities deemed undesirable. It’s a history filled with cruelty, including the near annihilation of the island’s indigenous population.
“I was intrigued by the past,” Flanagan says. “The past was a big thing in Tasmania because we had a terrible past that no one had really talked about. The past was more powerful in Tasmania than in other places. It was a weight on people. They felt they couldn’t escape their past. The past was very present.”
Many of Flanagan’s novels are set in the past, but it doesn’t mean the author is careless about the present.
“Any novel or film can look as though it’s about the past, but really it’s really about the present,” he says. “When people went to watch Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ in Elizabethan England, they knew that it was really a play about them. In the end, I am just writing about human beings and what people do when they love and hate each other, and when they try to help each other. The rest is just a stage setting.”
When Flanagan first started writing, he tried to write about big cities and crowds, emulating the great novels he had read. “Then I realized that I had to write about what I knew,” he says.
In a dialogue with contemporary Chinese novelist Yu Hua, Flanagan found the two had something in common. Both grew up in small towns and both had been influenced by American author William Faulkner.
“For all the great writers of the world in the last 100 years who grew up in impoverished and remote places, the writer that meant most to them was Faulkner,” Flanagan said.
“He was important for me because I had come from this impoverished place, the poorest state in my nation, and he came from the poorest in America,” he adds. “My state was belittled and misunderstood. So was his. His people had a terrible, dark history, and so does mine and Yu Hua’s.”
In his most recent novel “First Person,” the protagonist is a young Tasmanian who finds it very difficult to be taken seriously as a writer. It reflects some of the author’s own literary journey.
“Tasmania back then was much poorer than the rest of the country, and there was a prejudice against Tasmanians,” he recalls. “People were not interested in what you were writing.”
He still remembers when the leading Australian newspaper refused to review his first novel because the literary editor said it “did not fit into any recognizable school of Australian writing.”
“It’s a compliment,” Flanagan says, with a laugh. “Now it’s different. There are a lot of writers coming out of Tasmania.”
(Hasani Arnold contributed to this story.)