Richard Flanagan is the author of the The Narrow Road to the Deep North, recently released in the US by Knopf, and
longlisted shortlisted for Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
You referenced a lot of literature in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho, of course, and Tennyson. Your opening line sounds Biblical. I was struck by the contrast between your novel’s self-aware literacy and the brutish atrocities you relate. Isn’t it amazing that both Dorrigo, your genuine hero, and Nakamura, the sadistic Japanese commander who tortures prisoners, are cultivated men who are sensitive to literature? Classic literature provides a consoling cadence in your novel but it’s also loved by the bad guys. How can you explain that?
Richard Flanagan: I can’t. Nor could Paul Celan, whose line—”Mother, they write poems”—so well captures this same paradox that I used it as the novel’s epigraph.
A good book does not a good man make. The best-read world leader of the last hundred years was Stalin. Alexander the Great famously carried The Iliad with him as he conquered the world, sleeping with it of a night. Less remarked upon is how in ecstatic imitation of Achilles with Priam’s son, the prince Hector, Alexander—after sacking a city—tied one of its princes to the back of his chariot and dragged him round the city walls until long after the prince was dead.
Novels—much as many people want them to be—are not moral grammars, though this is an idea that is particularly strong in North American culture. They exist beyond good and evil, and when they succeed do so by suggesting the mysterious chaos at the heart of things. But they do not and cannot transform that chaos into order.
Horror, hate and murder are as deeply buried in every human heart as beauty, love and goodness, and all these things are far more closely entwined than we wish to acknowledge. Great literature is life itself. You can’t explain it, anymore than you can what any reader takes from it.
Dennis Haritou: You tried to give us an interior look at war criminals. Maybe I shouldn’t call them that since they didn’t think of themselves that way. How do you render characters who have done horribly wicked things and still have to live with themselves? Did you hate them even as you were elucidating their thoughts? Or is the act of writing more dispassionate than that?
Richard Flanagan: I rather liked them. Monsters are the closest characters get to our souls. I wrote them knowing that—given the right circumstances—my humanity is as capable of cruelty and horror as it is of love and goodness. And that only the inhumane, and bad novels, pretend otherwise.
Dennis Haritou: This question was suggested by Roy Hamric, a writer who lives in Thailand. He was wondering how you researched the incredibly disturbing details of what went on in Japanese POW camps. Did you examine trial records? Did that research helped you to understand the mindset of soldiers who would commit such gross atrocities?
Richard Flanagan: I didn’t really research. I lived. And mostly I made it up. As a child, my father taught me the Japanese words san byaku san ju go. It was his number—335—that he answered to as a slave labourer of the Japanese on the Death Railway. What these words denoted was for me, I guess, a strange mystery. Occasionally I glimpsed what that enigma might be in laughter, a grimace, a hand momentarily tensing on my shoulder, or the recited lines of others.
And so I am a child of the Death Railway. I am a writer. And sometimes it falls to a writer to seek to communicate the incommunicable. The rest is irrelevant detail.
But as you have asked, near the end of writing the novel I did go to Japan. There I tracked down some men who had been guards on the Death Railway, including one—the Ivan the Terrible of my father’s camp— who the Australians knew as ‘The Lizard’. After the war, the Lizard had been sentenced to death for war crimes, but his sentence was later commuted.
I met him—a gentle old man—in an office in a Tokyo taxi company. After an hour or so of conversation, I asked the Lizard to slap me in the manner the prison guards had the POWs. After some hesitation, he obliged my curious request. On his third slap the room began to pitch and toss, like a boat in a wild sea. A 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo.
As the Tokyo taxi office rolled around us and we with it, I looked at the frightened old man and I understood that wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room.
Realising realism never adequately conveys reality, I went back home, sat down, and started making it up again.
Dennis Haritou: This question was also suggested by a remark of Roy Hamric. Quoting Roy: “…all soldiers at the tip of the spear undergo a form of brainwash, a moral disconnect from their better natures.” Do you think that helps explain the moral depravity that you depicted at the POW camp?
Richard Flanagan: It only explains it so far. It is true that people in war—for the most part, good people, or, at least, not wicked people—commit crimes of such depravity that in any other sphere of life they would be locked away forever, or, as in parts of your country, executed.
But the evil begins not so much with the first beating or the first bullet, but often decades before when ideas are unloosed into a society—as they once were in Japan and Germany—that some people are less than people. And people who aren’t really people are much more easily treated inhumanely, because the very idea is one that seeks to negate empathy. That idea is promoted first not by soldiers or prison guards but by intellectuals, spiritual leaders, artists, journalists and politicians. And if and when it takes hold great evil becomes possible.
In the western world in recent years we have seen theses ideas of some people being less than people begin to be powerfully promoted. It was used to justify torture and explain away drone strikes. Societies can and do turn back from these ideas. And we should and must also, because to accept them, to run with them, leads finally to great horror.
“We too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility,’ wrote Primo Levi, “to forget that all of us our in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stands the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting.”
Dennis Haritou: Since it comes up several times in your story, I screened the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge. I found the movie dated in its depiction of the role of women…can’t be helped I suppose…but I also sensed something of what might have moved you to consider the movie a talisman. Did the movie help inspire you to write the novel? You seem to have had a deeply felt connection to the movie. Can you tell me what the film meant to you?
Richard Flanagan: It is a movie in which you see both how the world has progressed and also how it has regressed. In that age of Freudian dream readings movies were more given to the odd merge of the poetic and the psychological, and I simply liked the way it used very obvious devices to great effect—the candles being snuffed out, lovers meeting on the bridge, and so on. Life aspires to the symmetries and juxtapositions of poetry, but for the most part uses bad poetry as its model. The device of the movie was a galley slave that helped me row the ship of my novel into safe harbour.
Dennis Haritou: You’re relating an important historical event, the suffering of Australian POW’s in slave labour camps during World War II. And your novel seems to crest at an iconic bridge in Sydney where nearby, a celebrated building is under construction. Is there a sense in which you set out to write a national epic? Do you feel patriotic about the story you told?
Richard Flanagan: I hope not. When my first novel, Death of a River Guide was published, the Sydney Morning Herald—the leading Australian broadsheet—refused to review it, saying it didn’t fit into any existing school of Australian literature. I never again received such a great compliment. Meant as an insult, it was rather a liberation.
I come from—and still live in—Tasmania, an island some hundreds of miles south of Australia. By virtue of geography, geology, ecology, prehistory and history, it is a different country, which for good reasons, much to do with poverty, population and utter marginality, chooses to organise its affairs with the mainland. So I don’t really know what it is to be Australian—but then does any Australian?
Writers should only ever aspire to one adjective—good. But to be an Australian writer or an Angolan chiropodist—well, all national titles are a cage in search of a bird. And I’d rather be flying free.
To me Australia is an invitation to dream. And thinking of it that way, it is possible to feel, as a writer, that you belong both to the place you grew up, and to the universe of letters. The great literary traditions are ours also, but we are able to come to them, to use them, to thieve from them and laugh at them, with an ironic distance and a robber’s grin.
Dennis Haritou: It seems to me that I know of more than one American editor who makes trips to Australia looking for the next great discovery that he can bring over. Would you comment please on the literary scene? …what you like about it, talk about strengths and weaknesses…maybe mention some interesting names?
Richard Flanagan: I’ve never felt an Australian writer, nor part of the Australian writing scene (whatever that may be), so I don’t think I am really qualified to answer. (See above).
There are, of course, many fine Australian writers, some known, some not, but to list is invariably to offend, and that I don’t wish to do.
Dennis: Your central character, Dorrigo, seems like a puzzle to himself and to his wife. And I felt for Amy, his lover, when she wondered after the war: “Why doesn’t he contact me?” But to his colleagues and the general public the picture is monochrome. He’s a war hero and a humanitarian. Several people close to me felt like they were failures on their deathbed. I’ll probably feel the same way. In many ways, Dorrigo feels he has failed. How do you judge whether a life is a failure or not?
Richard Flanagan: How do we judge a life? Mostly wrongly. The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever-greater things, but it matters to never ever get down on your knees. You should die standing up.
Dennis Haritou: The brutality depicted in your text: I was moved by incidents where a POW would stare off into space, or try to focus his attention on a bird or a monkey in a tree so he wouldn’t have to watch a brother soldier being beaten to death, or as a futile attempt to distract his attention from the reality that he was being tortured.
Richard, how do you write this stuff? What did that do to you?
Richard Flanagan: I write it with a pen, and occasionally with a laptop. I have also used beer coasters, wrappers, serviettes and the back of my hand. For the time I spent writing this book, it felt that the writing was a way of divining the undivinable, that I might understand, if only a little, all the great questions about love and death, evil, goodness, cruelty, kindness and hope. And when I finished I realised I understood nothing. Nothing at all.
There is no why, as to why these things happen and keep happening, nor is there any why as to why I wrote this book. I just did. Literature is not an addition to life, nor yet a reflection of life. Literature is life, or it is nothing.
Dennis: Thanks again for the interview.