I have to confess at this point that I have not yet finished the book but I write this now because the events of today compel me. Flanagan and I are old friends - in the author and reader sense. I first became intimate with his work when I chose to write an essay for my Honours course, Textual Cultures, at the University of South Australia. In a sense, The Unknown Terrorist and The Narrow Road to the Deep North both articulate Flanagan's concern with 'man's inhumanity to man'. In the case of his Man Booker winning novel, Flanagan articulates the idea of being 'fully human' as being 'capable of the monstrous as well as the truly beautiful' (2014). He also describes the writing of the novel as 'cathartic' and explains (without any particular nod to the synchronous or serendipitous timing ) that his father had died virtually straight after he told him about having completed the book - some eighteen months ago now. The book, though not based directly on his father's experiences in Changi and on the Thai-Burma railroad, is nevertheless a creation born of the necessity to process the legacy of those experiences on the Flanagan family life. In this respect, I feel a kinship with Flanagan - having just spent the better part of four years researching and writing a PhD which draws also on World War II experiences, and the legacy of family members who survived the terrors of life under Japanese internment. (Other family members were not so lucky: my opa (grandfather) was tortured and later beheaded by the Japanese for being a member of a small resistance group in Java. My great-uncle 'Peng' worked on the infamous rail line, surviving only to be killed by an American submarine, while en route to Nagasaki to continue his life as a slave-labourer.)
Flanagan's writing has a poetic sensibility which casts a strong spell over the reader's emotions. His references to James Joyce's Ulysses shamefully eluded me and I wanted to phone my friend, scholar Steve McLaren and ask him to enlighten me further as I have not read the weighty tome, but I resisted and pressed on, deciding to do that before a second reading instead. Flanagan paints deceptively beautiful vignettes with the depth of a skilled philosopher and the skill of an impressionist painter.
The novel is primarily about relationships evolving from the central character Dorrigo Evans - a man of inspiring courage, dedication, achievement and what one might call 'moral flaws'. Flanagan's hero is a man shaped by love and war. He is also a man shaped by literature - and in these references, we feel the author's own reverence for the written word. As in some of his other work, Flanagan's style evokes
the circularity of a Shakespearian tragedy, where events seem predetermined yet the hero's journey is also shaped by his own decisions. As in his novels Death of a River Guide (1994) and The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), there is the feeling of a tale being told orally like that of an ancient myth, and the sense that Flanagan is in touch with the natural cycles of life and death is palpable throughout. His description of Dorrigo Evans' defining moment, Icarus-like, at a football match activates all the reader's senses:
For a moment it sat in the sun, and he understood that the ball was his to pluck. He could smell the
piss ants in the eucalypts, feel the ropy shadows of their branches falling away as he began running
forward into the pack. Time slowed, he found all the space he needed in the crowding spot into which
the biggest, strongest boys were now rushing. He understood the ball dangling from the sun was his and all he had to do was to rise. His eyes were only for the ball, but he sensed he would not make it
running at the speed he was, and so he leapt, his feet finding the back of one boy, his knees the
shoulder of another and so he climbed into the full dazzle of the sun, above all the other boys. At the
apex of their struggle, his arms stretched out high above him, he felt the ball arrive in his hands, and
he knew he could now begin to fall out of the sun. (Flanagan, 2014: 9)
Flanagan was born and grew up in Tasmania. He left school early, worked as a labourer and river guide; later, he educated himself and became a Rhodes scholar. He cites some of his literary influences as Blake, Camus, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Bohumil Hrabal and Henry Lawson (Pentecost, 2008: 10). He has suggested that he and other Tasmanians are influenced also by Gaelic and Aboriginal languages, and that the 'Australian experience' is vastly different from European cultures 'because of people's connection with the earth and other people' (Pentecost, 2008: 10).
Philosopher and Man Booker judge A C Grayling described Flanagan's novel as having a ' strong contemporary resonance' because of various conflicts that were happening now around the world (Brown, 2014). He said Flanagan's depiction was 'timeless' and that it spoke to the effect of war on human beings in a universal sense, despite the specific context being the second world war (Brown, 2014).
I shared the news of Flanagan's win with a long-time friend whom I am about to visit in Sydney. We are both reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North so that we can engage in a book group discussion taking place in Sydney later this month. Her text said simply 'Yes great (to the news). Tough read' ( 2014). By that, I gather that reading Flanagan's tale of working on the Thai-Burma railroad would become quite harrowing for the reader. Was I up to the task of finishing the book? I certainly hoped so.