Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Richard Flanagan’s vivid account of harrowing history is a solid choice for the Booker Prize // ‘Timeless depiction of war’

Australian writer Richard Flanagan has won the Booker Prize with a novel about an antipodean tragedy: the horrific suffering of soldiers during the second world war, forced by the Japanese as prisoners of war to work on the infamous Thai-Burma “Death Railway”.
Richard Flanagan’s book could seem like the conservative option, but he’s taken a fresh approach to a harrowing subject: this is both a hard-won achievement, and a solid choice for the judges. Ali Smith’s How to Be Both would also have made a worthy, very different winner, but this is in some ways a weightier book.
Twelve years in the writing, it draws on Flanagan’s father’s experience as a PoW on the railway, and was finished on the day he died. Raw and matter-of-fact, it is an almost overwhelming collage of suffering and death – more died on the railway than at Hiroshima; “more corpses than there are words in my novel”, as Flanagan has said – but also an exploration of the damage that extended beyond the war.
Flanagan writes of the survivors: “They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases.” Some remember nothing; for others the camps feel like “the only thing that had ever happened” to them.
He follows the stories of the Japanese guards too, some hanged for war crimes and some living into a comfortable old age. Japanese poetry is woven into the novel – The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the title of a work by 17th-century master Basho, as well as evoking the journey to hell experienced by so many of the characters.
The book is also an intense, unsentimental love story, and a study of the shiftiness of identity. The main character, Dorrigo Evans, makes himself into a hero precisely because of his conviction that he is not a good man. The war leaves him with a hunger for risk and a feeling of unreality in peacetime to match the terrible unreality of atrocities in war.
Flanagan first came to notice in the UK in 2002 for his third novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, a slippery, inventive picaresque set in a 19th-century Tasmanian penal colony. By bringing his material into the 20th century he has sharpened his literary gaze: this is a truly impressive historical novel, in that it uses fiction to animate history and create a document that feels as necessary as it is vivid. The reader cannot look away.
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Richard Flanagan's ‘timeless depiction of war’
The novel is an incredibly personal book for Flanagan, whose father was a survivor of Japan’s determination to build the railway. He died aged 98 on the day Flanagan emailed his final draft to his publisher. “I grew up, as did my five siblings, as children of the Death Railway,” Flanagan said. “We carried many incommunicable things and I realised at a certain point … that I would have to write this book.” Over 12 years he wrote five versions that he deemed inadequate and burned, but he was determined to finish before his dad died. He stressed that the novel was not his father’s story, although he had asked him lots of questions – “the nature of mud, the smell of rotting shin bone when a tropical ulcer has opened up, what sour rice tasted like for breakfast”. He added: “In the end my father never asked me what the story was, he trusted me to write a book that might be true.” Flanagan wins £50,000, money he said would be spent on “life”, as he was not wealthy and had even, 18 months ago, considered trying to get work in the mines of northern Australia because he had spent so long on one book. “This prize money means I can continue to be a writer,” said Flanagan, who also worked as one of the screenwriters on Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia. The philosopher AC Grayling, who chaired the judges, called his book “an absolutely superb novel, a really outstanding work of literature”. At its heart, the book tells the excoriating, horrific story of what it was like to be a prisoner of war forced to work on what has become known as the Death Railway between Thailand and Burma...

by Kim Hyo Soon and Kil Yun Hyung
By Kinue Tokudome

One of the most extraordinary engineering achievements of World War II was the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. With unbelievably primitive tools for such a project and a total disregard for human life and suffering, the Japanese built a railway 415 km long through one of most rugged and pestilence-ridden areas of the world in the incredibly short span of 12 months. The cost was a life for every sleeper laid over its most difficult sections. Dead were 13,000 British, Australian, American and Dutch prisoners of war and an estimated 70,000 Asian civilian laborers.