Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, spoke to us upon being longlisted in July of that year
Richard Flanagan’s debut novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is the story of surgeon Dorrigo Evans, one of hundreds of prisoners of war at a Japanese camp.
Flanagan, who worked as a miner before turning to writing, was inspired by his father’s experience as a prisoner of war on the Thailand-Burma death railway.
Here, he talks to us about where the title of his book comes from, whether he’d still be an author if he had no readers, and what makes a good writer.
What has it been like to be longlisted?
I was stunned and then I was hungover. Between I seem to recall a great deal of unexpected goodwill, which was far more touching than I would have ever expected.
Your title, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is borrowed from the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. How does a 17th-century travelogue describing a journey through Japan’s remote north east relate to the Burma railway during the second World War?
My father was a Japanese POW who worked as a slave labourer on the Death Railway, a crime against humanity that saw more people die than the bomb killed at either Nagasaki or Hiroshima. If Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is rightly celebrated as one of the high points of Japanese culture, my father’s experience was of one of its lowest.
It is for readers and God to judge, but for the novelist only to point. To escape the error of judgement, I sought to use the forms and tropes of Japanese literature – which I love – to help in the futile but necessary task of seeking to divine the undivinable. Murder, hate and horror are as deeply buried in the human heart as love and beauty, perhaps more so, and in truth they’re rather entwined, and if you tried to separate them, you’d be missing what was most important and human.
The Thailand-Burma “death railway” and Japanese PoW camps are emotive and familiar topics, how did you set about making them personal and unhackneyed?
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 not a topic. Nor did it seem familiar or emotive or hackneyed. It was, 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. After many years, I discovered it was also me.
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.
My novel is dedicated to prisoner san byaku san ju go.
George Orwell claimed that “Good writing is like a windowpane.” Is it or can it be opaque too?
Somewhere in Tristram Shandy I seem to recall a wild scrawl that Sterne says represents his novel. Zola, rather marvellously, used the same scrawl as the epigraph for one of his books. Good writing can be a clear windowpane or a page of block ink (Sterne again), a straight line or a lunatic squiggle. Clarity is a style, but it is only one of many.
Opaqueness, weight, lightness, daftness, darkness and madness – anything can be made to work. All writing seeks to achieve a transparency between a writer’s words and their soul. But on the rare occasions a writer achieves this, they discover in their soul not what they know, but all that they don’t – all the living and the dead, all love and all hate, goodness, evil, madness, rage and transcendence; in short the terrifying, exhilarating universe that is us. The ways of registering that universe are many, and all that matters is that good writing should simply be good, and what is good is finally the judgement of the reader.
If you had no readers would you still write?
Fool that I am, I probably would. But it is a guarantee of nothing, evidence perhaps only of a necessary failure of character.
There are remarkable writers who write without readers in the entirely implausible expectation that one day they will be read – Vasily Grossman writing Forever Flowing in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s; or Bulgakov writing The Master and Margarita in the late 1930s. Both men were dying in the darkness of a tyranny that seemed limitless. Both men were sustained by love, and by a belief that their works would outlast that darkness because they had an imperishable soul. Manuscripts, Bulgakov famously observed, do not burn. Of Grossman’s book, the head of the KGB observed, “This book must not be read for 300 years.” Which would seem to suggest that even he knew that, inevitably, it would be read.
The problem is that if the greatest writers have a faith that readers will find their books, so too do the worst. Writing is the most delusional vanity. We remember Grossman and Bulgakov’s magnificent commitment, but forget the many thousands who were no less committed but whom no one ever read. Could it be that the successful writer is simply the one with whom the public comes to share the same delusion?
What is your favourite Man Booker-winning novel?
John Coetzee’s Disgrace.
What are you reading at the moment?
Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova, the second volume of his memoirs written, subversively, from his wife’s point of view.
What are you working on next?
A novel about a ghost writer penning the autobiography of a con man.