Richard Flanagan started his session quoting Robert Frost, while peering out to see the Carrington packed to the rafters. After watching him again down Sydney Theatre-way, I doubt he’ll ever have to worry about empty seats again.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is my favourite book of recent years. Its scope, its compassion, its use of poetry, its melding of the Australian/Japanese view, its horror and love, its strange and cyclical stucture: I have it by my bed to dip into, trying to learn its secrets, as it helps me start on my second novel.
Taking part in writer sessions recently has helped me realise the importance of choosing a good interviewer. Geordie Williamson is always sensitive and assured, and I love how he challenges Flanagan with wordy flights and interpretations. Flanagan begins with a reading, and I’m surprised to find it’s the passage that some might say is the spoiler. I like the daring of this: bringing up the novel’s central dilemma — as Dorrigo Evans walks, he sees his lover after a lifetime without her: will he stop (will she?) or will he walk on by (will she?).
The beauty of the novel comes from the bringing together of hope and horror, inflicting us with obscenities, and then asking us to rise above them. Flanagan laughs when he says he was terrified to write a love story and that he put it off for five novels: that ‘everyone recognises a bad note’. In my own writing I know this to be the case; the ugly, the disturbing, the conflict, is much more seductive, but I’m hoping to move on too.
In many ways, Flanagan’s power comes from the personal. A ‘child of the death railway’, the impact on him was all-encompassing. Many audience members who stood up to ask questions echoed this. The young men who returned with severe trauma didn’t heal in their own lives, while their wounds were passed on to following generations. Many of us with tight-lipped grandfathers, the ones who would only loosen up after sinking a dozen on ANZAC day, understand this well, the ‘gaps between the silence of men’. Flanagan questioned the current infatuation with the ANZAC legend as based on contested ground, leading towards a ‘perverted and dangerous national festival … an insult to those who died … a vindication of chauvinism’.
He sees writing a novel as a ‘journey into your own soul’, his latest book an attempt to translate ‘the small acts of extraordinary kindness we show each other’, along with the gore and the filth of POW camps. Most clear is his sympathy for those caught up in the machinery of war. He met Japanese and Korean guards (The Lizard) in Japan, and ultimately sees war as demanding evil of innocent people.
When Geordie asked him about the ethical dilemmas of taking fictional liberties with the ‘literature of witness’ (he includes Levi here), Flanagan says that ‘writing can’t have ethics … it’s beyond morality’. He sees the role of the writer as ‘an idea of someone whose task it is to communicate the incommunicable’. What was most important to Flanagan was not to cause offence to his father, his dad’s mates, and the people who stumbled and fell along the line.
The novel took over a decade to write. He finished the book on the day his father died.
And through it all is Flanagan’s wicked humour. After humbling himself — ‘the things that are the best of me are in each book’ — he adds, ‘the rest of me is an added disappointment’.