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Bron Sibree Speaks to Richard Flanagan About his Man Booker Prize-winning Novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

richard flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North
Richard Flanagan (Random House)

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan has always known the words san byaku san ju go, Japanese for number 335, his father’s number as a prisoner of war in World War II. “I’ve never not known them,” says Flanagan, who inscribed his 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North with the words “for prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”. His father not only survived his horrific experiences on the infamous Burma-Siam Railway, or “Death Railway”, but lived until the age of 98. Archie Flanagan died on the same day his son finished his book, which was hailed by philosopher AC Grayling, chair of the Booker judges, as “a magnificent novel of love and war.”

By turns harrowing and poetic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North revolves around the story of surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who is haunted by the memory of a lost love and of his experiences on the Death Railway. It takes its title from a 17th-century travel narrative by the legendary Japanese haiku poet, Basho – a work that Flanagan loves and acknowledges as one of the high points of Japanese culture. “But if that’s so, my father’s experiences as a POW was one of the low points of Japanese culture, and I wanted to write a book about all that this had come to be in my life, because growing up as my father’s son didn’t mean simply that I absorbed his stories or that I reflected on his experience. It was that to some extent his experience was passed on, as these traumas tend to with human beings.”

Being “a child of the Death Railway” is a strange and potent legacy. Flanagan hails from “a tiny mining town in the rainforest on an island at the end of the world” – AKA Tasmania – and describes his novel as one that “had swelled up inside me, and it felt like it was beginning to choke me. The only way I could make sense of it was to write it.”

The novel has been widely praised for the humanity it brings to the Japanese and Korean guards on the Death Railway, and is suffused with poetry from west and east alike. But there’s no denying it also took Flanagan down his own narrow road of private torment during the 12 years he laboured over it. “I didn’t so much write five versions of the novel as write five different novels. Each one failed and I would then burn the manuscript, and so the years passed. Then I realised my father was growing old and frail and that for no logical reason I needed to the finish the book before he died.”

That his powerful tale of love, horror and beauty has gone on to win the Booker is still something of a shock, albeit a very welcome one. “I never expected to win, it was such a marvelous shortlist,” says Flanagan. That said, he jokes, “whatever good fortune came my way, I think it’s all been lost in promises to buy drinks back in Tassie.”

Flanagan is a man who can disarm you with a single sentence, floor you with a heartfelt aside. He is quick, too, to credit his great love of and facility with words to his father. “I gained from him this sense of how extraordinary the written word is, how transformative, how it is not separate from life but this most marvelous aspect of life itself, and it was something of that that I wanted to capture in the novel.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Image courtesy of Colin MacDougall


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