Richard Flanagan is nothing if not a man of his word. When his incredibly personal novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, he said, “Writing is a journey to humility.”
Then just a few days before the prize was to be announced, Flanagan — easily among the finest Australian writers of his generation — was quoted as saying, “In Australia, the Man Booker is seen as something of a chicken raffle.” A couple of days later, he won the raffle, thereby becoming the third Aussie to get the Booker after Thomas Kenneally and Peter Carey.
His words stayed in the memory of his numerous readers across the world. And in his mind too. Soon after he received the Man Booker prize — where he pipped to the post, among others, Neel Mukherjee and Howard Jacobson, who won the prize in 2010 — Flanagan did not forget his words, merely adding, “In Australia, the Man Booker Prize is seen as something of a chicken raffle. I just didn’t expect to end up being the chicken.” Then he happily talked of humility, taking care to bring in a reference to his grandparents. “I do not come out of a literary tradition. My grandparents were illiterate.”
What he did not say then, but said to The Hindu , was that his father was a prisoner of war for three and a half years in Burma where his award-winning novel is set. For years, Richard heard tales of people surviving on stale rice, living with open wounds, constant humiliation and, ultimately, a life of denial; a life by the deadly railway track linking Burma and Thailand. He heard it all from his father and siblings. Then, one day, he “decided to tell the story”, though his father never asked him about its contents. Flanagan and his five siblings grew up “as children of the Death Railway”. They “carried many incommunicable things” and he “decided to tell the story” through the book.
Thus was written The Narrow Road to the Deep North . It is a journey that took him 12 years; long enough for the Tasmanian to consider picking up a job in the mines of Northern Territory in Australia to meet his daily expenses. For such a long time, he lived each of the characters. “The central character — Dorrigo Evans — is me. And so too the Japanese commandant, Nakamura, and the murderous Korean guard, the Goanna. All are me, because within each of us lives the universe and the universe is never one thing. Its harmony lives in its oppositions.” Incidentally, the place claimed some 90,000 labourers’ lives.
Unfortunately, the day Flanagan mailed the publishers the manuscript of the war-time novel — dedicated to his father — Flanagan Senior, then 98, passed away. And the author, who had in the run-up to the D-Day, admitted, “I would miss my father if I did (win the prize)”, did indeed miss him when he got the award.
“Out of a literary ghetto to the biggest literary prize” is how he summed it up in a chat hours after the award ceremony. The ceremony in the U.K. was kind of a home-coming for Flanagan who had, early in his life, studied at the University of Oxford. As a teenager who left school at age 16 in Australia, Flanagan had won a scholarship to Oxford where he completed a Masters degree. All along, he worked as a river guide before taking to academic writing full-time. History, though, could not interest him for long. Soon, he switched to fiction.
He wrote The Narrow Road... in his shack on Bruny Island, an island off Tasmania. “It looks out on some trees, the sea and an array of animals there, including quolls.” From that far end of the world, he has written six novels, including Gould’s Book of Fish , which was a bookie’s favourite for the Booker about 12 years ago. Incidentally, this time too his book was a bookies’ favourite; his work seemed to tick all the boxes: it related a very human story of love and war, a deeply enriching novel that seemed to cry out for the medium otherwise said to be fading away. It was set in Burma, in news for many reasons of late. And it came from the pen of an Australian, somebody who had never won the award earlier. If, in the run-up to the award, Flanagan was the bookies’ favourite, the award has aroused new interest in his work. The book sold some 60,000 copies in Australia before the finals; in next 24 hours, orders for 10,000 copies were placed.
Understandably, he was less than pleased when it was suggested that the novel is a dying art. “Much has been made about the death of the novel. It is said to be assailed by technology, by the web. I don’t share that pessimism because I think it is one of the great inventions of the human spirit. It is one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual inventions of our age. As a species, it is story that distinguishes us and one of the supreme expressions of the story is the novel. Novels are not a mirror to life or a guide to life. They are life.”
Hardly a surprise considering he is happiest when writing and is a rare writer who is fond of human company, of places where people gather and talk. Post-Booker, he won’t be short of either the company or the place.
Hey, didn’t we talk about Flanagan’s humility at the beginning? Yes, we did. And Flanagan showed that characteristic in ample measure after winning the award. “The fractious tribe of writers is not readily given to fraternity. But I was honoured to be a writer among the writers on this short list. I said to Howard (Jacobson) that there was a good argument to be made for any of the short listed books being the winner. And there is. I hope readers remember 2014’s Man Booker Prize not for my book alone, but for the formidable strength of its shortlist of which I am proud to be part.”
This, after he nudged ahead of them all. How is that for humility for a writer? “To be a writer is to journey into humility. It is to be defeated by ever greater things.”
Indeed. Out of the literary ghetto and all the way to the Booker night. How is that for accomplishment?
Flanagan’s other works
Death of a River Guide (1994)
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997)
Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001)
The Unknown Terrorist (2006)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
A Terrible Beauty: history of the Gordon River Country (1985)
The Rest of the World Is Watching: Tasmania and the Greens (co-editor) (1990)
Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich (co-writer) (1991)
Parish-Fed Bastards: A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain, 1884–1939 (1991)
And What Do You Do, Mr Gable? (2011)
The Sound of One hand Clapping (director and scriptwriter) (1998)
Australia (co-writer) (2008)