Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker for his epic around the Burma Death Railway
‘Electricity and radio were yet to arrive and were it not that it was the 1920s, it could have been the 1990s or the 1850s.’ A remote Tasmanian hamlet of 40 is home to surgeon Dorrigo Evans and the stoic men who have survived the depression of the 1890s, when men died of starvation: this stark idyll begins a long journey. Thereon, we visit the Javanese highlands, where Dorrigo leads a thousand imprisoned soldiers, mostly fellow Australians, to the Line; an illicit affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife, unfolding between Melbourne and a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp on the infamous Burma Death Railway; and the chilling post-war Tokyo adventures of Major Nakamura, the POW camp commandant who kills for a new identity. Such is the epic trajectory of 2014 Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s panoramic tale of love and war, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto Windus, 480 pages).
On 14 October, 53-year-old Flanagan became the third Australian to win the prestigious award for this solemn, lyrical novel written in many drafts (reportedly burned each time) over 12 years and completed the day his father—one of the POWs—died. The ‘Death Railway’, the 415-km long ‘Line’ created by Japan’s Imperial Army in 1943 as World War II came to a boil, was used to move troops and provisions between Bangkok and Burma during Japan’s Burma campaign, and 9,000 Australians were among the many captured and put to work.
“I do not come out of a literary tradition,” Flanagan said in his acceptance speech at London’s Guildhall. “I come from a tiny mining town in the forest on an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate.” Flanagan hails from Longford in Tasmania, whose capital, Hobart, he now calls home. The island state is part of Australia, itself a part of the Commonwealth united by the British Empire, that outdated yet culturally potent legacy. This descendant of Irish convicts became a Rhodes Scholar, reading history at Oxford and going on to create a steady and colourful body of work reflecting the necessary hybridity of post-colonial, post-global existence.
He has always been ambitious, always taken risks. Flanagan began with four works of non-fiction, one of them the autobiography of a notorious conman, John Friedrich, which he is said to have ghostwritten. In 2002, he won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001), an unlikely account of a nineteenth century forger which New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani pronounced ‘phantasmagorical’ and, ultimately, ‘stunning’. The fantastic canvas of criminality and vice propels the arc of many of Flanagan’s dramatic tales. Death of a River Guide (1994), about a drowning man’s reminisces; The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), a bestseller about Slovenian immigrants which was made into a film; The Unknown Terrorist (2006), about a pole dancer accidentally entangled with a suspected bomber; and Wanting (2008), twin stories of Dickens and an Aboriginal orphan. The books have been published in 26 countries.
It is a pity that it is one of his least inventive—and perhaps one of his less even—novels which has won our attention, but if his oeuvre is any indication, this will be the beginning of an even more interesting era. As Flanagan said at Guildhall, “Novels are life, or they are nothing.”