Australian novelist Richard Flanagan wins the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his war novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
What do we know about Richard Flanagan? Everyone had already decided the prize was going to Neel Mukherjee, British Indian writer and bookie’s favourite. But 53-year-old Flanagan became the third Australian to win The Man Booker Prize yesterday, for his epic story of love and war on the Burma Death Railway, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto Windus, 480 pages), written over 12 years and completed the day his father—who lived the reality of the Allied prisoner of war (POW) whose story he captures—died.
Tasmanian-born Flanagan won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Gould’s Book of Fish in 2002 and is also the author of Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (also a film), The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting, which have been published in 26 countries. “I do not come out of a literary tradition,” he said in his acceptance speech at Guildhall last night. “I come from a tiny mining town in the forest in an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate. And I never expected to stand before you in this grand hall in London as a writer being so honoured.” While accepting the £50,000 prize Flanagan called Nikki Christer, his publisher at Random House Australia, “the Motown publisher, who cracked me and so many other Australian writers out of the literary ghetto and took us to a mass audience”, joking that he hadn’t expected to be the chicken in the “something of a chicken raffle”.
His is a big old-fashioned war story, full of blood, passion and the fire of the elements: Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans struggles through a Japanese POW camp in 1943, full of cholera and violence, and a love affair with his uncle’s young wife which he can never match in intensity with his feelings for his fiancée (for more on the book, see ‘The Booker Shortlist’, 20 October). That the affair is as central as the violence recommends the book for the film it may very likely become, but it takes away from the central strength of the narrative: the prolonged struggle of slave labourers in this dramatic historical moment.
The ‘Death Railway’, the 415 kilometre-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. Allied soldiers captured when Singapore fell in 1942 were put to work in a gruelling battle with their masters and nature. Around 13,000 of the 60,000 POWs and 100,000 of 180,000 Asian civilian labourers who all worked on the railway died, according to reports. Burma has been called a ‘forgotten war’ and POWs were receiving a paltry £76 as compensation as recently as 2000 (The Telegraph, 2013). Several have written about the fallout of this conflict. British POW John Coast wrote an early memoir, Railroad of Death (1946); Scottish POW Eric Lomax wrote an autobiographical account The Railway Man (1995), adapted into a film starring Colin Firth; Pierre Boulle, a French engineer and secret agent who was a POW for two years, wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952), adapted into the Academy Award-winning film of the same name.
Why do we return to the same narratives contained within the Holocaust and World War II? Perhaps it is that they keep telling us more. The winner of this year’s Booker prize has taken this small pocket of history and made it his own; of the 13,000 Allied slain, the British made up half, dominating history’s account of the time, and Australians made up 3,000 of this number. In telling the story of Australia’s POWs, Flanagan’s father’s small legacy grows to reflect their larger one; and the larger conflicts at play today. Judge AC Grayling, who chaired the Booker jury, said of the book: “This depiction is timeless, it is not just about the second world war, it is about any war and it is about the effect on a human being.”
Widely reported as the outsider in the race (6/1 at William Hill), Flanagan is paying off for everyone who betted on him early.
And what of the Line? With the dream of a global Japanese Empire lost to radioactive dust, the railway no longer had either purpose or support. The Japanese engineers and guards whose responsibility it was were imprisoned or repatriated, the slaves that had remained to maintain the Line were freed. Within weeks of the end of the war the Line began welcoming its own end…
In the end all that was left was the heat and the clouds of rain, and insects and birds and animals and vegetation that neither knew nor cared. Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo. Decades would pass. A few short sections would be cleared by those who thought memory mattered, transformed in time into strangely resurrected trunkless legs—tourist sites, sacred sites, national sites.
For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only. And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.