One of our wisest writers, Richard Flanagan is quite simply a national treasure. It was a thrill to hear him speak last night about his acclaimed The Narrow Road to the Deep North (my review here). He was always quoting from authors in a way that illuminated his own work. And he was very funny – you’ll have to listen to the podcast for his hilarious anecdotes about the French translation of a ‘brick shit house’ from an earlier work, and his promotional trip to the US after Death of a River Guide was finally published there.
He opened by a reading, chosen by Gale, of the traumatic surgery scene in which Dorrigo Evans tries to cut away some more of a gangrenous leg in the blood-soaked mud of the Line’s jungle. How did he capture such visceral details, asked Gale. Flanagan spoke about how the writer’s role is to communicate the incommunicable, both the ecstasies and horrors in life. Truth exists in details, and he would often ask his father, one of Weary Dunlop’s ‘one thousand’ men, about the small details, such as how the limestone cut feet – what it felt like on the skin – and what colour the rice was and how it tasted. These telling details are truths that build such visceral accuracy.
He went on to say the meaning is only ascribed to events and details) after they occur. It is the role of literature to point but not tell the reader how to experience a novel. Readers, he said, are far more creative than writers. They often carry novels in ways the author cannot. And it is the reader who is best placed to tell the author what the story is about.
It mattered to him to incorporate the Japanese experience in the novel. He said he would have considered it a failure had he not done so. Guilt is more abstract than shame. The Japanese may not have felt guilt, although some said they did and do, but some did feel shame. He spoke of meeting guards who had maltreated his father, how they said to say sorry to him. When he returned from this trip to Japan and told his father this, his father forgot that same day all his horrible experiences in the POW camps.
How did the POW experience change his father, Gale asked. Over time, before this event of forgetting, his father’s memory slowly distilled his experience into love rather than the darker alternative, and his memory of his father’s mates who had gone through the same experience was much the same, although he did acknowledge some POWs came home and were violent in their homes.
The story was as much about love in all its forms as it was about war. It had to be thus, Flanagan said. Love exists beyond reason, and when asked whether his novel left some questions unanswered, he said it would be a terrible book it if answered any questions.
Giving us a glimpse into the journey of writing any book, Flanagan said novels are ‘a cracked diary of your soul for the years you write them’, and he mentioned Flaubert’s famous ‘Madame Bovary cest moi!’ quote. Dorrigo Evans is me, he said. Novels surprise you as much as you hope they do readers.
He is nearly finished two further novels, after explaining how delivering the manuscript to his publishers (on the day his father died) has lifted a huge weight off him – the words are flooding out, and he’s writing in a way he never has before. The two future works? One about the true move to annex a large part of Tasmania for Palastine in the twentieth century, and a novel about John Friedrich, one of Australia’s infamous fraudsters. Again, you’ll need to listen to the podcast when it is posted to enjoy fully the hilarity of Flanagan’s angle on these stories.
He did three readings in total, his last one taken from near the end of the novel when the Line is swallowed by jungle. I was disappointed Gale did not ask him about the poetry that is central to both Dorrigo and the Japanese. But there was poetry in everything Flanagan said, about writing, war, love, the human condition, about memory and forgetting. He felt the Japanese were no different to the English who staked Aboriginal heads outside their tents in Tasmania. The seeds of their actions were sowed decades before, when the Imperialist dream warped the behaviour of ordinary people. It is sadly, he said, born of a view that some humans are less human than ‘we’ are, and made a moving rebuke of the way Australia has been stained by a similar insensibility toward asylum seekers. How true, and how sad. But there is a swathe of us who would do it differently, and it falls to us to make our voices heard and force change.
We have other things to look forward to as well: those two future novels for starters.
I encourage you to listen to the recording when it becomes available.