Out of the many stories that Richard Flanagan tells so well about himself and Australia’s past, there’s the unforgettable one about the time he met the Lizard.
He was researching The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the novel about WWII’s Death Railway; his father had been one of the troops-British, Australian, Dutch, Indian-who survived being conscripted by the Japanese into building the Burma-Siam line. Over 100,000-200,000 of the labourers conscripted died: “more corpses than there are words in my novel,” Flanagan told Guernica. Then he met the Lizard. Once one of the most brutal of the camp commanders, he was now “a gentle, gracious old man” who spoke quietly of the past. They talked for an hour, and then Flanagan asked the man to slap him. It had been one of the camp punishments; he wanted to see what it would be like. The Lizard, now just another old man, slapped him, reluctantly, just as one of Tokyo’s earthquakes shook the room. Flanagan says to his interviewer: “And I realised at that moment that wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room with me and that frightened old man.”
Neither Flanagan’s novels nor his life as an activist lean on the comfort of easy answers. He grew up in Tasmania and said in his Booker speech: “I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate. And I never expected to stand here before you in this grand hall in London as a writer being so honoured.”
The bookies’ odds on Flanagan had improved as the date of the prize announcement drew closer, but Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Howard Jacobson’s J had been the front-runners, with Ali Smith, Karen Joy Fowler and Joshua Ferris also producing rewarding novels. Readers who know Flanagan’s writing love the way in which he finds different answers in different novels to the question of how humans make their peace with memory or are weighed down by its rough stones. Those who haven’t read Flanagan before might want to begin with Gould’s Book of Fish or The Unknown Terrorist, just to whet your appetite for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
It is typical of Flanagan that a book built on such grim material, historical and personal, should begin so beautifully: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” Dorrigo Evans, now in his old age was one of the men who had survived the Line; he finds his solace in the writings of men long dead, Homer, Basho, Shisui. “As naked slaves, they were starved and beaten and worked beyond exhaustion on the Line. And as naked slaves they began to die for the Line. No one could reckon it, neither the weak nor the strong. The dead began to accumulate.”
This is an Australian story, but also a Japanese and a Korean one, in parts, and it is Flanagan’s particular genius to convey what it means for ordinary people to be overtaken by a tragedy, still clinging to the once-commonplace, now-luxurious hope of their former lives.
Flanagan’s view of history is hardwon, and not at all academic. He has agitated successfully against pulp mills, for instance, calling others to stand on the road along with him and place their bodies between the machines and their homes: “Our love. Our island. Let’s take it back. Let’s start marching.” His attacks on John Howard, Australia’s refugee policy, the country’s treatment of Aborigines, loggers and Kevin Rudd have been sharp and furious. In an essay on the Commonwealth, he speaks for many when he writes of his own discovery: “Slow and stumbling and finally astonishing, that we were never British in disposition or temperament, that the great southern land had its own stories.”
Being born too late and missing the dream of Empire is a blessing for Flanagan, who has felt free to turn the force of his conscience and his writing – both often entwined – on the myths and wounds of his own country. For a man of such passionate political temperament, his Booker Prize speech was equally revealing of his character. His novels are attempts to capture “life itself”, not thinly fictionalised polemics. He would get back to critiquing Australia soon enough. But when he went up to accept his prize at the Guildhall, Flanagan did not speak of his quarrels with the idea of the Commonwealth, or of the weight of history’s ghosts.
Instead, he included his fellow writers: “Josh, Karen, Howard, Neel and Ali-I see tonight as ours, not mine”. His speech was about the love of writing, and the way in which its practice was a journey into humility.
And Flanagan ended with the most passionate defence of his profession heard in a while, one that will last as his books will: “As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.”