Questions & Answers
The book is dedicated to your father, himself a prisoner of the Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Can you say more about how his experiences informed your life and this book?
As a child, my father taught me the Japanese words san byaku san ju go. It was his number - 335 - that he answered to as a slave labourer of the Japanese on the Death Railway. What these words denoted was for me, I guess, a strange mystery. Occasionally I glimpsed what that enigma might be in laughter, a grimace, a hand momentarily tensing on my shoulder, or the recited lines of others.
After many years, I discovered it was also me.
And so I am a child of the Death Railway. I am a writer. And sometimes it falls to a writer to seek to communicate the incommunicable.
Did your father share Dorrigo's feeling that 'forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line and the rest of humanity, who were not'?
Perhaps at times he did. And at other times wherever he saw suffering I think he saw his own past in that of others. He felt a battling (as we say here) single mother down the street far braver than any soldier.
During the war and after, he once told me, he never cried. Then as an old man, my elder sister lost a son to cot death (SIDS). For a year after our father broke down frequently and cried. Terrible as the loss of his grandson was, we all understood he was grieving for something beyond that immediate tragedy.
Dorrigo Evans though is a very different character than my father. For me to be free to write a novel, a real novel, he had to be.
What supplementary research did you have to do?
I lived. The rest is irrelevant detail. Mostly I got up each morning, sat down, and made it up.
Near the end of writing the novel though I did go to Japan. There I tracked down some men who had been guards on the Death Railway, including one - the Ivan the Terrible of my father's camp - who the Australians knew as 'The Lizard'.
After the war, the Lizard had been sentenced to death for war crimes, but his sentence was later commuted. I met him - a gentle old man - in an office in a Tokyo taxi company. After an hour or so of conversation, I asked the Lizard to slap me in the manner the prison guards had the POWs. After some hesitation, he obliged my curious request. On his third slap the room began to pitch and toss, like a boat in a wild sea. A 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo.
As the Tokyo taxi office rolled around us and we with it, I looked at the frightened old man and I understood that wherever evil was, it wasn't in that room.
Realising realism never adequately conveys reality, I went back home, sat down, and started making it up again.
A love story threads its way through the book. Was it there from the outset or did it come to haunt the book the way it does Dorrigo?
It was. I was walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2001, not long after publishing a novel called Gould's Book of Fish. And I recalled a story of which my family was fond.
A Latvian man had returned to his home village after the war, to find it razed to the ground and his wife, he was told, dead. Refusing to believe it was so, he searched the wastelands of post-war Europe for her for two years. Finally he had to accept the truth: the love of his life had perished.
He emigrated to Australia, ended up in the village of Longford, Tasmania, where my family also lived, met another woman, married and had a family.
In 1957 he visited Sydney. Heading down a crowded street he saw his Latvian wife, alive, walking toward him, with a child on either hand. At that moment he had to decide whether he would acknowledge her or walk on by.
This very beautiful story had always moved me and walking across the bridge, amidst crowds on a late summer afternoon, I imagined a returned POW, many years after the war, similarly walking across the bridge seeing the love of his life, who he had since the war thought dead, now walking towards him.
I rushed to a pub in the nearby Rocks, and wrote on beer coasters what would become the defining chapter of the book. What I couldn't know was what began with such a rush would take another 12 years to finish.
But from that beginning I knew that the novel had to be a love story, because great love stories seek to demonstrate the great truth about love - that we discover eternity in a moment that dies immediately after. War stories inevitably deal in death. War illuminates love; love, though it does not redeem war, offers the only solace we have when faced with the inconsolable chaos at the heart of things.
How much of a challenge was it to get inside the heads of the Japanese captors; did that only work because they are portrayed in many ways as victims themselves?
They were less of a challenge than I should admit, for they tend to be the characters closest to my soul -- perhaps to all our souls, which are as capable of cruelty and horror as they are of love and goodness. And only the inhumane, and bad novels, pretend otherwise.
A key for me was reading Conrad's story - a variation on Heart of Darkness and as extraordinary a work - An Outpost of Progress, in which two Europeans end up running an ivory trading outpost far up the Congo. Convinced of their moral superiority and the moral imperatives of their mission - the bringing of progress - they nevertheless - or perhaps inevitably - relapse into a physical and moral squalour that leads them to begin trading slaves as well. Finally one kills the other, and then hangs himself.
Reading that story I realised the Japanese engineers and guards were no different than the English colonists in my previous novel Wanting, who boast of the necessity of hunting down the Tasmanian Aborigines. They were me.
Poetry, laugher, music - even the mournful sound of the bugle that attended the prisoners' makeshift funerals - are these the things that keep the prisoners going in the face of otherwise relentless brutality, illness and horror?
Auden is oft quoted for saying poetry makes nothing happen. Less quoted is that stanza's end, where he makes his greater point - 'it survives'.
And this power to endure is no small thing when we are confronted with the near all-consuming horror of evil. When human beings are stripped of all things, perhaps the last defence our humanity has are poetry, laughter and music. These things cannot stop death, but they remind us of all that defies it.
Dorrigo exhibits many heroic qualities in the camp, but more of a baseness once back home. Can you say more about the apparent contradictions in his character?
Character without contradictions is caricature. Some readers have asked why I wrote a book about such a bastard, others see him as a hero. Some view Dorrigo as contemptuously weak, others as a paragon of quiet strength. Presented with such wildly divergent opinions, I feel I have at least succeeded in creating a character who is human. It is for God and the reader to judge a writer's characters, wrote Chekhov, and for the writer simply to describe.
How is possible to keep hope alive in such circumstances as the camp?
I don't think it was always possible, and the men who lost it died. Not that having hope was any guarantee of survival. Many men hoped to the end and died anyway. Nietzche said hope was the cruellest of emotions, because it prolonged torment.
But hope is the nub of us.
And men found hope in the smallest things and the most absurd things, because that is what we do as human beings.
And that is also why a novel without hope is, finally, untrue to life, and therefore a failure as art.
No stranger to literary awards already, how does it feel to have been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize?
I was stunned, and then I was hungover. Inbetween I seem to recall a great deal of unexpected good will, which was far more touching than I would have ever expected.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
It's the story of - Or, with luck, it may turn out to be something entirely different. Nothing is as damaging to a novel as the successful realisation of its author's intentions.
Richard Flanagan was interviewed by Frances Gertler exclusively for Foyles