Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan talks about the events which inspired The Narrow Road to the Deep North including his own experiences as a child of Burma's Death Railway

Richard Flanagan

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Can you describe your latest novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North?

My father was a slave labourer on the Death Railway, built in 1943 by the Japanese with POW and Asian slaves through the then wilderness of Thailand and Burma, at the cost of between 100,000 and 150,000 lives. I am a child of the Death Railway.

I always knew that at some point I would have to write this book if I was to keep on writing. But it is a novel, not a history; and Dorrigo Evans, the novel's main character, a doctor, is not my father, but me. 

After I finished writing the book I realised it was a story of love, written in the shadow of my father dying. I wrote it as one man’s life in which is discovered many other lives, framed by a story about the many forms of love – erotic, familial, fraternal, paternal, aesthetic and physical. 

It has at its centre one day in a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway, in which an innocent man is murdered. The novel thereafter follows the various characters — Japanese, Korean, Australian — to their various and varying ends. Writing this novel I wanted to understand guilt and shame, evil and love. And when I finished the novel I realised no understanding is possible.

Your novel shares its title with a work by the poet Basho, why?

The haiku poet Basho’s great book, the travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), is one of the high points of Japanese culture. The Death Railway is one of its low points. I wanted to use the forms and influences of Japanese literature, so beautiful, so profound, in the hope of divining, if only a little, a story so terrible, so inexplicable.

How did you manage to achieve such a vivid sense of the horror which took place on the railway?

I didn’t. Some readers simply found it in the book. Others found other things — humour, love, despair, hate. I intended only to convey — as best I could see, hear and smell — the  humour, spittle, rot, mud, stone, pus, rain, blood and shit. And to convey the extraordinary — such as the Pharonic use of slavery that built the Death Railway — a writer must work solely on getting right the ordinary using everyday language. To communicate the incommunicable — which is the writer's task — it is necessary to locate your writing in the world of real things and name them exactly for what they are. And that was no easy task that took me twelve years.

What place does hope occupy in your novel?

The vertebrae. All life seeks to express itself as freedom, the motor of which is ever hope. Nietzche saw hope as the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man. Even so, we can not live without hope, and without hope any novel is untrue to this most fundamental dynamic of the soul, and quickly becomes a lie, a bore and a bad read.

About The Narrow Road to the Deep North

'Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not.'

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has at its heart one day in a Japanese camp on the Burma Death Railway in August 1943. As PoW Dorrigo Evans struggles to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a message that will change his life. And as the story grows to encompass the lives of the prison guards as well as the Allied prisoners, Flanagan draws all the elements together with a luminous love story, that of Dorrigo and his pre-war affair with his uncle’s wife Amy. Post war, Dorrigo is married to another woman and, perhaps unsurprisingly, finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.

It is all the more moving to know that Richard’s father, Arch Flanagan, was himself a survivor of the Burma Death Railway. The book is not based on Arch’s life, but Arch gave Richard many details to draw on. And in researching the book Richard travelled to Burma and Thailand, into the treacherous jungle where his father and comrades lived and died as slave labourers. Richard also went to Japan to meet one of his father’s tormentors, a former guard known as the Lizard who had once been sentenced to death for war crimes. Richard has spoken about this difficult encounter, saying that 'wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room with him'. When Richard was able to tell his father about this meeting his father began to forget all the detail of the camps 'as though finally he were freed from it'. Richard rewrote the novel in the wake of these trips, and in the shadow of his father’s decline; Arch died the day the book was completed.

Narrow Road is dedicated to Prisoner 305, Arch’s number in camp, and is in many ways a living memorial to all the Allied PoWs and their captors. Eric Lomax’s extraordinary memoir The Railway Man is back at the forefront of our minds, and is happily, in the film tie-in edition, once again a bestseller. As people continue to be gripped by these events it is hugely exciting to introduce Richard’s novel to a British audience, sharing as it does with Lomax a generosity of spirit and eloquent wisdom and a search for understanding.

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