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Richard Flanagan: More Corpses Than Words

The author of Booker-shortlisted novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North talks with Dwyer Murphy about the Death Railway, family history, and the trouble with empathy.

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Image courtesy of Ulf Andersen

The end of summer saw the US release of The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf), the latest novel from the Australian writer, Richard Flanagan. In September, the book was selected for inclusion on the 2014 Man Booker shortlist.

Flanagan has a distinguished career—with six novels, including Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish, and a long list of awards to his name—but The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his most expansive and ambitious work to date. Its subject is the World War II-era atrocity commonly referred to as the Death Railway, in which the Japanese built a rail line between Bangkok and Rangoon using a combination of local and POW labor, resulting in carnage and misery beyond all measure. The author’s father, Archie, was among the survivors, and Flanagan says that this was a story that has been with him his whole life—that he felt he had to tell it in order to keep on writing.

At the center of the novel is Dorrigo Evans, an Australian POW charged with overseeing a crew of his compatriots during some of the most brutal and deadly periods of the railway’s construction. The story spans much of Dorrigo’s life—youth in Tasmania, a love affair in the earliest days of the war, late-in-life celebrity—but is more than a portrait, as Flanagan leaps from one character to another, exploring the story’s most fervent moments from an ever widening circle of perspectives. The cast is breathtaking, with the story handed over, at times, to POWs from all walks of life, the camp guards, the women left behind, the men on their return home, and even the commanders later tried for war crimes. Flanagan’s prose is measured but relentlessly rich, at times a counterpoint to the crushing servitude of the work lines, at other times a chronicle of the terrible suffering inflicted on all involved. It is, in the end, as rigorous and powerful and honest a book as you are likely to find.

I spoke with Flanagan last month at the Center for Fiction in New York. In conversation, he was soft-spoken and intense. As I questioned him, he seemed to consider me more closely than I have ever considered myself. His stories were wrenching and mesmerizing. He spoke in complete, elegant paragraphs and often clenched his hands into fists. He told me about his experiments with classical Japanese forms, his thoughts on the Booker Prize, the twelve years he spent struggling to write this novel and his journey to Japan to meet his father’s captors.

Dwyer Murphy for Guernica

Guernica: We should start by discussing the scope of the atrocity that you’re writing about here—the Death Railway. The sheer numbers are astounding.

Richard Flanagan: They are. In 1943, the Japanese built a 420-kilometer railway through what was then the wilderness of Thailand and Burma using over a quarter of a million slave laborers. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 of them died. More than died at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. More corpses than there are words in my novel. There were 9,000 Australian POWs who worked on it, and of them 3,000 died.

It’s one of those terrible human tragedies, the essence of which is incommunicable.

Guernica: Is this one of the principal tragedies that Australians remember when they think about World War II?

Richard Flanagan: It has become a larger story in Australia, but it’s still not that large. It’s a strange story that isn’t readily absorbed into any nation’s dreams. It’s one of those terrible human tragedies, the essence of which is incommunicable. The enslavement, humiliation, torture, and ultimate destruction of thousands upon thousands of human beings for a project for which there was ultimately no purpose is a horror that’s very hard to imagine, far less understand.

Guernica: Did you feel an obligation to try to capture what happened?

Richard Flanagan: The survivors found it very difficult if not almost impossible to communicate. It’s similar to the experience of the Gulag or the concentration camps. There’s a story about Anna Akhmatova standing outside the KGB’s Lubyanka Prison in 1942. She was in this long queue on a dreadful Moscow winter’s day with some bread that she was trying to take to her son, who was inside the prison. Another woman in the queue recognized her as Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, and said to her “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova looked up and down this wretched line of human suffering, and said, “Yes, I think I can.” I think sometimes writers must attempt to communicate the incommunicable, because, whether they wish it or not, they’re the ones to whom it falls.

I didn’t feel obliged though. It was just something I finally couldn’t escape. I would have avoided it if I could have. But you find yourself in this terrible queue and that’s your task.

Guernica: Do you remember when you first heard about your father’s POW experience?

Richard Flanagan: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Death Railway. My father was a bit different than most of the men who survived. Most of them didn’t talk about it at all. My father did, though he talked about it in a limited way. He told us comic stories and occasionally stories of compassion and caring, but there was so much that was unsaid. Not denied, but unsaid. I learned as a very young child to count in Japanese, I learnt the number san byaku san ju go—335— which was my father’s prison camp number. I was one of six kids, and it affected all of us. We grew up as children of the Death Railway. It was this strange story within each of us.

When I look back at my early attempts to write this story, on much of the twelve years I spent trying to write this novel, I think that maybe I was really evading it. In the end, I knew I had to finish it, and to do that I had to go off on my own. I have a shack on an island off Tasmania, and I went there to live for about half a year. I’d see some family and friends on the weekends, but otherwise I was just alone. I knew that I had to write this book in order to keep on writing.

Guernica: I imagine you were in a dark place while you were working on it.

Richard Flanagan: Well my father was dying through that time, so I was in a strange place, but it felt like the right place to be. I think it’s always wrong of writers to make too much of the pains of their labors, because most people have much worse jobs and suffer such indignities and hardships. I had some bad jobs when I was young. Writing is not one of them. If you’re fortunate enough to reach my age, to still be writing, you have to be grateful, and I am. I’ve been lucky. For many years, all I’ve done is writing, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Guernica: When you began this project, were you collecting your father’s stories?

Richard Flanagan: No. Most of them I carried within me, or made up. There did come, though, a two-year period where I would see him almost every day. And we just talked about very concrete things: how the canvas was rigged on the bamboo, what was the thickness of the cooking pots, what did a rotting leg ulcer smell like.

We live in a material world, not a dramatic one.

Guernica: He remembered those details?

Richard Flanagan: He had an extraordinary memory. He loved talking about it that way, piecing together these smallest true fragments. There was meaning in them. He would get emotional sometimes, but mostly it was an unemotional way of talking about what happened to him. And I felt the truth about this story would reside in the concrete reality, the physicality of that world—the smell of the mud after a downpour, the particular sharpness of a limestone shard as it cut your feet. Those things had to be got right. I felt the story would lose its power if I sought to dramatize it. We live in a material world, not a dramatic one. Love is the scent of a sleeping back, death a slight draft of bad breath.

Guernica: Did you go to Thailand to see the terrain and the railway?

Richard Flanagan: I did go to Thailand. I walked what little remains of the Death Railway and found my father’s camp. I don’t research much, though—just the bare minimum. Borges, citing Gibbon, observes that the lack of camels in the Koran proves it is an Arabian work. It’s a sin for a writer to go looking for camels to put into his or her pages. I only want details that are the story.

Having said that, near the book’s end, I felt that I had to go to Japan, because I had heard that there were still some guards alive. I searched them out and found several very old gentlemen. I didn’t go in the spirit of accusation or judgment. I went to them the same way I went to my father. I just wanted to know particular details.

Guernica: And the former guards were willing to talk with you?

Richard Flanagan: They were open to a considerable extent, but not to a complete extent. I think the point at which they were careful, if not reticent, was when they talked about life and violence within the camps.

Guernica: Because they felt guilty about what they’d done?

Richard Flanagan: I don’t think they felt guilt. It was a decision of the American occupation of Japan that the emperor, who stood at the apex of the system, would not lose his throne and would not be tried. The Australians wanted him hung, but the Americans believed that retaining the emperor on the throne was the only way Japan could be occupied without a great loss of life. The Americans were probably right, but the consequence of that policy is that it’s hard to feel individual guilt for what you’ve done, if the supreme authority, the godhead, was himself found to have no responsibility. These guards were at the bottom of the pyramid, and they felt powerless to be other than what they were.

I think empathy’s a terrible danger for a writer.

I think that what these old men felt was something more fundamental than guilt. They felt a sort of deep, human shame. A perhaps inexplicable shame. I went to the place where my father ended up after the Death Railway, about sixty-five kilometers south of Hiroshima, where he worked as a slave laborer, and I met a guard who lived there. The media was there, too. They wanted to take a photograph of us together, so I was standing with this tiny man who was about ninety, and the photographers wanted me to put my around him. I thought, that’s all right, so I put my arm around him, and he just curled right into me, like a child. I think he wanted to be held. I didn’t go there to give him comfort. I didn’t think it was my place to judge or forgive. I did think he felt shame.

Of course, the corollary would also hold. The men who met me met me for a reason. Those who didn’t meet me, the many already dead, those still living, would have had among their number some, perhaps many, perhaps most, who felt not shame but pride. That’s what I imagine, and anything you imagine has already happened.

Guernica: These must have been very intense experiences, for you and for the guards.

Richard Flanagan: I was scheduled to meet another man who lived in suburban Tokyo. He was going by a Korean name, and about five minutes before I was scheduled to meet him, I realized who he was: the man the Australians called the Lizard. He was the Ivan the Terrible of my father’s camp. He had been sentenced to death for war crimes, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was later released in the general amnesty in 1956, and afterwards he changed his name. This man was hated. I’d grown up hearing stories of his cruelty. And with five minutes to prepare myself, I found out this was the man I was about to visit. I was a bit undone by that. But then I was met at the door by this gentle, gracious old man who did his best to answer my questions. After about an hour together, I asked if he would slap me, because that was the immediate form of punishment in the camps, and I was interested in that detail. He thought it was a very strange request and didn’t want to do it, but finally he agreed and we stood up. I asked him to slap me as hard as he could. He was an old man, but he did it. On the third slap, the whole world began to shake and shudder. It was a very strange thing. The room was slopping about like a dinghy in a wild sea. A 7.3 Richter earthquake had just struck Tokyo.

Guernica: Jesus.

Richard Flanagan: It was one of those things that reality allows us, but if you ever put it in a novel you’d be castigated for unreality. I thought I was going mad until I realized that it was an earthquake. It went on for about some time. I looked at the Lizard while this was happening. He was terrified. And I realized at that moment that wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room with me and that frightened old man.

The fallacy is that you have to hold some sort of stake in the grief or horror in order to write about it—I think the opposite is true.

Guernica: I’d like to frame this as a craft question, and forgive me if it sounds rude or just wrongheaded, but it seems to me that your prose is particularly strong and even beautiful in precisely the passages that describe terrible suffering and horror, and I wonder how you feel when you’ve finished one of those scenes. Are you broken? Do you feel proud or pleased with what you’ve written? I imagine it’s a complicated state.

Richard Flanagan: An interviewer told me once that I was very empathetic, and I said I hope not. I think empathy’s a terrible danger for a writer. A writer has to stand outside the page. It’s not for the writer to shed tears onto the pages for these characters. It’s not for him to suffer or to laugh or to experience ecstasy or agony in the manner of the characters on the pages. It’s to find the words to convey ecstasy or agony in a way that’s true. It’s completely a question of craft. The fallacy is that you have to hold some sort of stake in the grief or horror in order to write about it. I think the opposite is true.

Guernica: What about when you’re writing from the point-of-view of the Japanese guards? You portray them as so much more than tormentors. That doesn’t require a leap of empathy?

Richard Flanagan: Well I think the most monstrous is also the closest, isn’t it? The monsters demand less of you as a writer because they’re probably closer to who you are. That’s the terrible truth: those sections in my book are the ones that came the most easily to me. Isn’t that a horrible thing to confess? Murder and hate are as deeply buried in the human heart as love, perhaps more so, and in truth they’re rather entwined, and if you tried to separate them, you’d be missing something important and human.

Guernica: I’d like to talk to you a bit about the portrayal of love in this book. It seems to me that you you’re less shy about tackling erotic or sexual material than many writers.

Richard Flanagan: Are they shy about it?

Guernica: I’d say many American writers are, for example. We could probably throw some Brits in there, too.

Richard Flanagan: Well, it’s dangerous country for a writer, because not so many of us have participated in a genocide or a crime against humanity, so the reader will permit a writer liberties and errors in this regard. But most of us have loved. And the terror for a writer is that readers will forgive you so much, but they won’t forgive you one false note about love, about which they too are expert. So I think it’s common sense to shy away from the erotic. Perhaps this grand experiment, which started with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of seeing what you can write and how you can write about sex, has reached a certain weary terminus with Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the end, writing about sex at length is a bit like describing mastication at length. It’s the causes and the consequences and the meaning of it that are interesting, not the anatomical descriptions. And that’s what eroticism is—the causes and consequences. That’s what fascinates me—that shudder when one body ever so slightly reveals itself to another, and with a touch, a look, a gesture that tears opens this fixed world and reveals the other, the true, terrifying world of us. The secret world we all have, and which we all deny.

“…the betrayal of their spirit by their flesh is a profound aspect of what happened on the Death Railway.”

Guernica: Although anatomy—bodily fluid in particular—plays quite an important role in the Death Railway scenes.

Richard Flanagan: I think for young men to witness the disintegration of their bodies and the betrayal of their spirit by their flesh is a profound aspect of what happened on the Death Railway. It’s not just that you’re being physically destroyed, it’s the spiritual and psychological shock of knowing that you’re going to die, that there’s nothing you can do about it, and that your body will not save you.

I met a Japanese medical orderly who had been in my father’s camp. My father never told me much about anything ugly or horrific. But this Japanese medical man said that when he got to the camp, he walked in and there were just these skeletons crawling through the mud, that it was like a Buddhist hell. I asked him if the skeletons were the men with cholera—because cholera is a disease that wastes a body away, just shrivels it up in the twenty-four hours before you die—and he said that the men with cholera were much worse, that these were just the ordinary prisoners. To have those skeletons wandering around in the mud, but then also to have people joking and singing in the camps—that’s the sadness of it, but also the comedy of it. It’s a grotesquerie of such unreality that you have to try as realistically as possible to convey it.

Guernica: When did you first discover the Basho work—Oku no Hosomichi (commonly translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North)—that gave this book its title?

Richard Flanagan: I’d read it many years ago, and originally I thought I would try to replicate Basho’s work, with the odyssey of these Australian POWs mirroring the Japanese epic, because Basho’s book—along with his other writings—is considered one of the high points of Japanese culture, and what happened to my father and the other Australians POWs was one of the low points of Japanese history. I wanted that contrast, but I also wanted to write about the story in a way that didn’t seek to judge or even to understand. I thought that using the forms and tropes of Japanese literature would allow me to do that—to divine the undivinable—and I hoped that this would somehow be liberating for me as a writer. So I read a lot of Japanese literature and experimented. Originally I wrote it as a book of linked haiku. Then I wrote it as a haibun, which is the form of Basho’s Narrow Road, a combination of prose and poetry. And each of those books, of course, was terrible. In the end, I wrote it about five different ways before I finally wrote this novel. It took me about twelve years to find the right form.

“You have to attempt to find new forms that will force you to write freshly and better and hopefully more truthfully.”

Guernica: In retrospect, why do you think this book gave you such a difficult time?

Richard Flanagan: I really don’t know. What is obvious now, that I should have just written it the way I ended up writing it, was not clear to me then. Each attempt was necessary. I think writing should be about change. Miles Davis said about playing bebop, “If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.” You can’t repeat yourself, because what starts out as a fresh and honest way of conveying truth becomes hackneyed and tired. Ultimately, it becomes a lie, and that’s the worst thing you can do to a reader. So each book you have to seek to go beyond what you know. You have to attempt to find new forms that will force you to write freshly and better and hopefully more truthfully.

Guernica: This book feels more chiseled than some of your earlier work. It sounds like you were experimenting with some very efficient forms—haiku, haibun. Did you make a decision that you wanted to pare down your style?

Richard Flanagan: Absolutely. With each book I think—well, I hope—I have achieved some level of competence, but at that point I want to see what I haven’t done, or to see if I can do it in another, better way. This story, too, lent itself to a very lean prose style. Really, though, style is the wrong word. What you’re constantly seeking isn’t a style, but a transparency between your soul and the words. And your soul is ever in flux, so therefore you have to constantly find new forms of words that might be able to register these changes in the soul.

Guernica: Can I ask you finally a little about the Booker Prize? The Narrow Road to the Deep North has been nominated to the long list. (Editor’s note: after this interview was conducted, Mr. Flanagan’s book was included on the Man Booker short list.) You’re the only Commonwealth writer up for it this year, and the Guardian pointed out recently that the reduction in Commonwealth writers from last year to this year is the exact number—four—of Americans nominated. I wonder if you bristle at the new rules?

Richard Flanagan: I’m not opposed to Americans being included. All these prizes have their strange arbitrary rules. The Man Booker simply swapped one set of strange arbitrary rules for a different set of strange arbitrary rules. Literary prizes serve a purpose if they allow for discussion of books. The problem is when one book goes on to win and then that’s the only book deemed worthy of attention. That’s a symptom of a much greater problem, though. In the end you’re not made or broken by prizes. Your relationship is with your readers, not a prize, and you just have to keep on honoring that.

Guernica: It sounds like you don’t care that much about the Booker, so I just want you to know that I put ten pounds on you winning. Don’t screw this up for me.

Richard Flanagan: I’m afraid a lot of people have lost a lot of money over the years betting on me.

Guernica: You look like a favorite right now.

Richard Flanagan: Really? That’s disturbing.

Guernica: Do you ever wonder who these people are, the ones betting on you for something like the Booker? Other than your magazine interviewers, I mean.

Richard Flanagan: In Australia there are quite a few. They love gambling.

Guernica: Maybe they feel the pull of national pride, betting on the lone Australian.

Richard Flanagan: Oh no, they’re betting against me. These are gamblers, not the literati. They’re smarter than that.

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