Transcript: Richard Flanagan in Conversation with Ramona Koval


Watch the interview here.

RAMONA KOVAL: Richard Flanagan, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Welcome to the Monthly Book.

RICHARD FLANAGAN: It’s lovely to be here with you, Ramona.

RK: Richard, even though it is about lots of things, including war, sacrifice and courage, this book started with a love story. I wanted you to talk about the kernel of this book, the thing that got you thinking.

RF: Well, my parents used to tell this story of a Latvian man who lived in the town I was born in, Longford in Tasmania. He’d immigrated to Australia in the wake of the war. But at war’s end he’d gone back to his Latvian village, which had been utterly destroyed and with it, he was told, his wife. Everyone said she was dead and he searched for her there; he searched that hellish wasteland that was Europe, in the immediate postwar period, for two years – the refugee camps with the various organisations that were set up for displaced people. And in the end he had to accept that she was dead. He came Australia. After some years, he married a woman here and had children to her. And then in 1957 he went to Sydney; he was walking down the street there and saw his Latvian wife walking towards him with a child on either hand. He had a few moments when he had to make the most momentous of decisions: whether he would acknowledge her, halt and speak to her, and thus set both their lives perhaps on an irrevocably different path, or just walk on by and ignore her. He had to weigh up his love for her then, his love for her now, what that meant – a most extraordinary, I would imagine, avalanche of feelings – and come to a decision. I thought this was the most beautiful of stories because it spoke about love in so many ways. It was very much an image and a story that I built the whole book around. I always saw the couple walking towards each other on Sydney Harbour Bridge because when I’m in Sydney, I like walking across there. It is the most beautiful way to appreciate Sydney. There’s something beautiful, particularly in the afternoon, the way light and shadows fall across those vast ribs. That was the image: a man seeing a woman he thought was dead approaching him, with a child on either hand, and his realising his whole life comes to that point.

RK: So, many of the decisions people make, including those made by characters in the book, are those momentous decisions. Suddenly you’re faced with something: which way do you move? How do you summon up the courage or the strength to go one way or another, and these things can haunt people for the rest of their lives.

RF: Well, I think life’s like that, don’t you, Ramona? It proceeds glacially. Then there are sudden moments and we realise we’ve lived only for those moments, and in those moments everything in our lives is happening and we’re faced with choices. I think this is something not so uncommon to us. It’s just strange how the world proceeds, though, with the illusion of the tramline of progress, and we get off at all stations in equal time. It’s not like that; it’s like a glacier that suddenly carves an iceberg.

RK: In many ways, that scene could have taken place in many of your other books: the man, the villain, the past, the future, the present. What was it about this book that meant it was the nest for that scene?

RF: I really don’t know. I knew that these things were coming together in my mind over 12 years ago, that I wanted a love story. I knew it would be about prisoners of war, or it would have the prisoner of war experience at its centre, and I went up to Sydney and I spent a few days wandering around with Tom Uren, who was in the same camp as my father. I guess I had the whole feeling for novel in my head at that point; I just didn’t have the details, which would take me over a decade to assemble in a coherent fashion and led me through not drafts but really five different novels. There was a novel of linked haiku; there was a novel of haibun, which is a Japanese form, a nature journal written in prose with occasional haikus. I wrote a large Russian sort of war epic with a ridiculously large and impossible to remember cast. I wrote a family epic. I finished each one and then abandoned them because they didn’t work. But I had to write all them to write this final book. There are large elements, even of the linked haiku novel, in this one. So each one clearly had to be written in order for me to write this book, but I wish I could have written it far quicker.

RK: You grew up with some stories from your dad, who was on the Burma railway. What kind of stories did he tell? Of course, the book is dedicated to ... you say the prisoner number.

RF: Prisoner san byaku san ju go, which was number 335, which was my father’s number in the prisoner of war camps, which he taught us as children. We grew up very aware that he’d been a prisoner of war but he didn’t impose it on us; we sort of imbibed it. He didn’t talk about it all the time, by any means, but nor was he silent about it. He would tell these stories really in a querying way. They were gentle, often funny, stories, and there was about them a great humanity and pathos and love. He didn’t dwell on the suffering at all; he really disliked that. He would tell the stories and then think aloud about them, and I remember one time he said that he was very lucky, that they were the best thing that ever happened to him, to be in these camps, because they only had to suffer. He felt that to go to war as a soldier means for most people that you have to inflict suffering, and then, if you survive it, you have to live with the fact that you acted as an agent of evil. He felt they were in a situation where they would discover, not the worst of themselves, but the best. What’s that line of Whitman’s? “I contain multitudes”. I think he slowly came to feel that he contained multitudes, and it was that vast experience, that mad slave system that was this quarter of a million people working naked, or near naked, with tools that would have been used millennia ago to build this extraordinary folly, this railway through the unknown jungle.

RK: You talk of containing multitudes and that he was grateful he didn’t have to inflict punishment or pain on other people. You write in this book from the point of view of the Japanese guards as well because you are interested in the multitudes that were there at the time. Tell us about going to visit and meet some of these people who worked for the Japanese in the camp, which was part of your research for the book.

RF: I think that one of the things that was extraordinarily difficult for the Australian prisoners of war was that the violence in the camps was to them utterly arbitrary, without sense. There was no pattern they could discern, no reason why the violence would suddenly erupt. I think this is immensely spiritually and psychologically destructive for any human being. In fact, I remember years ago reading a study by a Salvadorian psychologists who were Jesuits, who were actually killed by a death squad in the end. They had done a big study on the uses of terror in Pinochet’s Chile. What they discovered was that initially Pinochet had used terror in a systematic way. That is, if you were an intellectual or someone whose politics differed from that of the regime, well, then, you would be picked up and tortured or killed. What Pinochet realised with the advice of psychologists, which was revealing, was that this sort of terror doesn’t frighten people, because they know that if they go silent, if they don’t stand up and oppose, they will be safe. Then they bide their time. It doesn’t mean that the whispering in their hearts ceased. Pinochet’s regime after a year or two, on the advice on psychologists instituted a regime of random terror. They would pick up an old woman, some children from a shopping centre, someone out of a car – utterly random – and their charred bodies might turn up in a gutter two weeks later. That terror, although statistically it was as unlikely to happen to you, really does terrify people because then you do not know when they might come for you. And that was one of the things that was terribly corrosive for the Australians in the prisoner of war camps because the violence seemed completely random. And yet it seemed to me that it would not have been that way to the Japanese, and I have a great love of Japanese literature, and I wanted to try to understand it from the Japanese perspective: why people would have done this. Near the end of writing the novel, I went to Japan to meet some of the former guards who’d worked on the death railway. To answer your question: how’d I meet them? Some Japanese women had come to my father’s house to say sorry to him some years before. They were part of a network in Japan that had campaigned hard to try to get the history curriculum in the schools changed to accurately reflect the reality of Japanese militarism. One of them was a journalist who had done very brave and extraordinary work exposing the horrors of Unit 731, I think it is, the Japanese small army in Manchuria, that did the most horrific biological experiments on Chinese civilians and prisoners. Through these quite extraordinary and brave women I was able to find these guards and make contact with them and go and meet them. I met one who had been the sort of Ivan the Terrible of my father’s camp, who the Australians knew as “the Lizard”. I hadn’t known until five minutes before I arrived at this taxi company in an outer suburb of Tokyo that this man I was meeting was actually the Lizard, and that rather undid me, I must say. He was hated by the Australians for his violence; he was sentenced to death for war crimes after the war; he had his sentenced commuted to life imprisonment, and he then was released in an amnesty in 1956. The man I met though was this courteous, kindly and generous old man. Bizarrely, an earthquake hit Tokyo as I was sitting in the room with him, and the whole room pitched around like a bobbling dinghy in a most wild sea, and I saw him frightened. I realised whatever evil is, it wasn’t in that room with us. I talked with him about his childhood, about the way he’d been press-ganged into becoming a prison guard at the age of 15, how he’d hated the training, which was incredibly violent, and wanted to run away back home. But he knew if he ran away, his father would be punished by the Japanese. He told me how he hated the way the Australians whistled and sang and seemed happy.

RK: Because he was unhappy?

RF: He didn’t say that. He said some quite extraordinary things. He said, I am not Korean; I am not Japanese; I am a man of a colony. That’s how he understood himself, and he saw that his fate was a fairly wretched one and he sort of understood that he’d never be forgiven, and that he had to live with those things. These people are despised by the Koreans, who see them as traitors, despised by the Japanese because they are Koreans. They don’t belong in Korea or Japan; they have a very hard place to live in. These same people often had sisters who ended up “comfort women” for the Japanese. They were inculcated into a culture of extreme violence, and it was understood that if they didn’t in turn inflict this violence onto the prisoners, who they were made to believe were less than human in any case, they would suffer terribly.

RK: But he did stand out for your father and your father’s friends.

RF: He was monstrous. But I wasn’t there to accuse him or judge him. I was there to hear his story, to try to understand what it must have felt like to be condemned to death, to try to feel what he felt about his parents. Really what happened to Japan from the turn of the century up until what we call World War Two, which they call the Great East Asian War, I think a perverse death cult took over the whole society. That death cult meant, for example, the Japanese commandant commanding a section of the line that had to be built, if he didn’t get it built, he would have felt he’d have to kill himself out of shame. Everyone suffered in that death cult. No one’s life had any value. The Australians’ lives had no value, but neither did the Koreans’ and neither did the commanders’. It was an utter perversion of humanity and everyone became trapped in it. I still find it hard to comprehend: more people died on that railway than there are words in that book. More people died on that railway than died at Hiroshima. And yet really outside of Australia, it’s been forgotten. It’s been forgotten by those who were there, such as the Malaysian Tamils, the Burmese, the Thais. It’s an inexplicable story from recent times.

RK: You went back to the railway with your brother, I guess the same way you went to Sydney with Tom Uren. You like to make these sorts of journeys, it seems, on which something might happen, or you might see something? What were your thoughts when you were in the place where the Burma railway was built? Is it all jungle now?

RF: I think it’s very different now. My understanding is that it was much more teak jungle then, and Thailand had a pretty small population. The population has since exploded, and there are a lot of people living in these places now. It really was a fairly remote wilderness even for the Thai and Burmese people. But nevertheless, you still get a strong sense there was a jungly sort of bush there. The railway is mostly overgrown except for those places that have been cleared for the tourists, essentially. But we were able to find my father’s camp and we were able to walk the track through to the railway. We were able to work out where the cholera compound was, where the creek that brought the cholera into the camp was. Once that exists in your head you begin to absorb... I didn’t go there for sensation or cathartic revelation, I went there to feel the humidity, to feel what it was like to move in that humidity, to grab hold of thorny bamboo, to look at the limestone-rock cliffs and the mud and to try to understand what it would be like to walk barefoot through that. To look at the embankments and the cuttings and work out how you would use hand tools to create such things. I carried rocks just to feel what that was like in the heat. I realised the more I opened myself up to that sensory world, then I would have something to draw on when it came to write the book. I think it’s wrong to try to pretend that you can relive that experience or to know that experience. But you can open yourself up to the physical world of it. That for me is a very important tool because you’re writing truths about human beings but they always have to be embedded in that very real, concrete detail.

RK: I wanted to talk about the writing of this book because if I remember parts of the book, of the camp, or some of the engagement of war beforehand, I think of death and heat and hunger and suppurating wounds and filth and shit and sweat. As I read it, I can see that you’re right in there; I’m right in there as a reader, and I notice there are some repetitions of language, of words: death. But I’m not bored by it, I’m going along with you. It’s almost like they rhyme in some way; it’s a kind of poetry. You’ve got me bound, as long as those guys are down there. Tell me about writing that kind of scene and the language that you need to use. I suppose there’s a sort of limitation when it comes to the kind of language you can use.

RF: Well, I’m always interested in trying to make things more readable, and it won’t be news to the followers of your book club that repetition is regarded as very poor writing in modern literature. Modern literature frowns upon it, and editors are trained to strike it out. Modern word-processing programs make it so easy to – well, “global” is the term – global a word to make sure it’s not repeated. But really the great literature always uses repetition to build up rhythms and patterns – essentially the music – and I think we are very tuned in to those musical patterns, and it is those more than even characters or the progress of plot that allow a reader to enter the world of a novel and open up to it. Specifically, that means you might repeat an adverb three times in a paragraph but hopefully artfully enough that the repetition doesn’t strike people but it gives it a tone which is much closer to conversation, where we do repeat words and yet we don’t notice it. You were talking about “death”, and there’s a passage I know you were interested in where the words “death” and “dead” build up a drum-like marshal beat. In one way, it’s a little like the Molly Bloom soliloquy in reverse, but I was also very taken by the power of Paul Celan’s poetry and the way he creates rhythms with language, with his most harrowing of poems about his experience of the holocaust.

RK: He repeats: “Your hair, Margaret, your hair.”

RF: Yeah, that’s the poem. That very famous poem. It repeats the same three or four lines over and over, doesn’t it, with a slightly different patterning of the words, and slowly this universe of horror opens up to you because he manages to convey the sense of a marshal evil, drumming. Within is the doom of you and everything you love. And the drumming grows and grows. I think there is an idea of high modernist prose particularly common with people out of American creative writing schools that actually has lost the importance of those poetic cadences and tropes in the writing of prose.

RK: And you’ve quoted at the beginning Paul Celan’s “Mother”.

RF: Well, Celan was a German speaking and writing Romanian, who lost both his parents in the holocaust. He continued to write in German, and he wrote some of the greatest German poems of the century about the greatest evil the Germans had done. I felt, in a way, that spoke to the challenge I faced, which was to try to write about this great evil that the Japanese people were responsible for, but honouring all that is great and truly beautiful about their culture, and their literature truly is. And so that’s why I called the book, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, which is of course the title of one of the most famous works of Japanese literature: A haibun by Basho, the great haiku poet.

RK: And of course the railway is the narrow road too.

RF: And throughout it, there’s a lot of very famous haikus reversed. So things like: “blow after blow, on the monster’s face, a monster’s mask”, which is Basho’s famous haiku: “Day after day / On the monkey’s face / A monkey’s mask”. There are many, many inversions of haikus, which those who know Japanese literature will see very clearly what’s being done there.

RK: Your father died earlier this year. What did he think about you writing this book. He knew you were writing it, you were asking him questions about his experience. He knew you went to Japan; he was worried about you going.

RF: I told him I was going to Japan and that I’d be meeting some guards. Because it was such a vast project, I didn’t think any of them would be people who’d been at his camp; I didn’t think that for a minute. When I got back, I was able to tell him I’d met several guards that had been at his camp, or the death railway or the slave-labour camp he ended up in Japan, south of Hiroshima, that I’d met the Lizard, and that I felt they’d all said sorry. That they’d all, I felt, carried regret and shame. That although they weren’t necessarily entirely honest and that although I wasn’t sure it was possible that they’d ever quite reconcile their souls with what had happened in a fully honest way, I still felt there was something genuine in all this. That there was regret. He suddenly stopped talking and said he had to go, which was unlike him. His mind was still very sharp and he was interested in these things. And later that day he lost all memory of the prisoner of war camps. Nothing else happened to him: his mind remained very sharp and alert in every other way. He knew he’d had this experience – like being in the womb – but he could recall no detail of it. It seemed as if he was finally free of it.

RK: How do that make you feel, as a son and as a writer?

RF: It’s hard for me to talk about. This is really a book about love, written in the shadow of my father dying. I literally finished the final draft on the day he died. In our last conversation, he asked how the book was going and I told him it was finished. I don’t feel the events are connected but nevertheless it is a strange thing to have happen to you – that you would finish such a book and then your father would pass away. In the manner of books, particularly large novels like this, there have been revisions, consequent on copyediting, to be made, and I worked on them thereafter. But the book was done, and then he died, and that’s it. A large part of my life came to a strange conclusion, I guess.

RK: Was it a struggle to have to deal with such – I mean, there are passages of love and sex and fun in this book so I don’t want people to think it’s all very depressing – but tell me about getting down into the dirt, getting down into the mud. How did you manage that each day when you were writing those passages? Was it something you could leave at the end of the day and live your normal life? Did you think, “Oh, I have to go back into that room with these terrible images”? Actually they were images, weren’t they? They were sketches of camp life and cruelty? And there’s a character there who does sketch in your book. How did you manage the emotions of writing those things and living as Richard Flanagan?

RF: Firstly, I should say, to me, the book is an affirmation, strangely, of joy in life. And although it passes through a dark place, I hope it’s uplifting. And people who’ve read it tell me that they do find it that. Because it is really about the beauty of human beings in the most extraordinary circumstances. How did I write it? In the end, after I got back from Japan – I have a shack on a place called Bruny Island, where no one much is – and I went there. And I pretty well lived by myself; my wife used to come down at weekends, and occasionally some friends would turn up, but I was more or less alone in this place by the sea in the bush for the best part of five months. I rewrote the book top to bottom. I’d get up at five and be working by six and work through till I went to bed at nine or ten. I’d go for a swim; I’d do a bit of snorkelling in between and then I’d go back to the book. I had to do that because I had nothing else in me: it all had to go in to the creation of this book. Balzac said he only had one hour of the day to give to life, the rest was for writing his novels, and I didn’t even have that one hour; it all had to be for the novel. These things for most writers are an extraordinary labour; there’s no getting away from it. There’s a very slow crafting of sentences that just takes an inordinate amount of time, and you just have to slowly hew away at it.

RK: The sentence crafting: was that separate from the emotional tenor of the material you were writing about?

RF: I think it’s searching for an accuracy not a description of feeling. And that means then you have to be very disciplined about avoiding emotion, really. I think it was Chekov who said, If you want people to feel sad, never let a tear be seen on the page. You just have to try to accurately describe what your characters are doing and saying and so on, and that’s the labour. I don’t think it’s a case of working yourself into a joyous state or an erotic state or a miserable state, and then writing from that. It’s both simpler and harder: you have to think, how would you describe that particular feeling and how would you write it accurately.

RK: There are some memoirs that have come out of these experiences, that have been written. Which were the memoirs that you found most useful?

RF: I’d grown up reading them. I think the most wonderful are Ray Parkin’s, the greatest war memoirs that Australia’s produced. But I tried not to lean on them too much. Really my biggest influence were just the stories I grew up with and heard from my father. Only my family would know, but the ways in which they are torn apart and reassembled in strange order and strange mismatching would hopefully tell something of my father’s story and yet was a completely different story. The lead character is utterly unlike my father.

RK: The lead character is a person kind of like Weary Dunlop, or who had Weary Dunlop’s job, I suppose.

RF: Weary Dunlop was one of many doctors up there. It was a strange thing but the doctors were the leaders in the camps, and they were idolised by the men. Weary Dunlop is the best known of them. But there were quite a few: Rowley Richards, Arthur Moon, Kevin Fagan, to name just some, and they were all held in equal high regard by the men and performed similarly extraordinary feats as Weary Dunlop. So I was interested in a character who wasn’t seen to be a leader who finds himself in that role and then has to do things, extraordinary things, but doubts his capacity to do them, who feels in a way like a sham and a fraud but who ultimately still does extraordinary things because in a way he was actually being led by the men to do them. It’s a necessary thing. In the same way that Australians talk about mateship as something very simple, but I think it’s a very complex form of human survival, where the mateship in the camps was a system of incredibly strong bonds and loyalties. I don’t think it necessarily meant you even liked someone; it meant you were locked into a pattern of obligation that ensured they would survive, and therefore you had a chance of surviving. An enormous sense of self-sacrifice existed within that, and it’s an extraordinary idea of human behaviour.

RK: It sounds a little bit like Malinowski writing about the Kula Ring or some of these arrangements you find in Polynesia or Melanesia, where tribes are dependent on each other and obligations are built up, and you may not like this person but you trust them. You owe them and they owe you.

RF: Yeah, I think there was a lot of that. I think there was also acts of great altruism as much as there were harrowing stories of betrayal, failings and weaknesses on the part of the prisoners.

RK: You used the word “evil” before. “If evil was here, it wasn’t in this room,” you said when you talked about meeting the guard. Do you believe that there is evil or are people acting because of colonialism or they’re being forced to do this or that, or a kind of mysterious death cult that arises through history? I mean, you were a historian.

RF: I do believe in evil, yeah. I believe in goodness and I believe in love. I think human beings and human history are the consequence of these hugely irrational forces. Much as we want to deny them and corral them, these are the things that propel us, and we carry all of these – the worst things and the best things – within ourselves. I think it was Clint Eastwood who said, “Violence has consequences.”

RK: That great poet!

RF: [Laughs] It has causes too. It’s always wrong to focus on the moment of violence, and think that tells you the whole story. You have to understand what led to it, and what leads to it – my very limited understanding of Japanese history – is that you have half a century of a culture slowly being poisoned by ideas of militarism, of nationalism, of race, and a poisonous religious aspect, which crept in from Zen Buddhism, in the same way that we know so well about Christianity and Europe in the 20th century. All the wickedness and the evil goes back to those people advocating these ideas, and slowly seducing, press-ganging, forcing and finally shaping society in the image of these very evil ideas. Any society can go down that path, and than we all become the agents of evil. So, I think it’s always very important that these things are resisted early on and resisted for what they are at the beginning, because you can do something about them then. By the time you’re building a railway through a wilderness with a quarter of a million slave labourers, it’s a little too late to expect the jailers to behave with any humanity. It’s gone beyond that. But you still have to seek to understand what led to it. I’m not a historian and this isn’t a historical book but it is a book about the truth of human beings, I hope.

RK: Well, it’s a wonderful book, Richard, and it’s always great to talk to you. Thank you for coming in and talking to us at the Monthly Book.

RF: Thank you very much, Ramona. Thank you for everything.