Infinite Love and Murderous Impulses: Richard Flanagan on The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize last night for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, inspired by his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war. Last year, Ramona Koval interviewed Flanagan about the book at the Wheeler Centre. Their conversation ranged across the process of writing and researching the book, insights into the writing process, and what it’s like to talk about such a deeply personal book after it’s published.

In this edited extract from Ramona Koval’s interview, Flanagan explores that family inspiration and the link between growing up with his father’s stories of his experiences as a prisoner of war and the creation of the novel. He also describes going to Japan during the writing process to interview former camp guards, and the way his father found a kind of release from his experiences. This extract is in Richard Flanagan’s own words.

When I came to write this novel, which has been twelve years in the writing for me, I chose the title The Narrow Road to the Deep North – which I’m sure many of you will know is the title of one of the most famous works of Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho in the seventeenth century.

My father’s experience and that of his mates was one of the low points of Japanese civilisation and I wanted to use something of the forms and techniques and ideas of these high points of Japanese culture to explore this very low point.

The stories he told us were funny stories, but they were always tinged with a pathos and a great humanity. They weren’t stories of horror and they weren’t stories of hate. I can’t remember when I first heard many of the stories. You have stories as a family. You grow up with them, and over time, like a seed that grows into a tree with exotic fruit, they start to acquire more and more strange meaning to you. And I guess I’ve been turning these stories over in my mind ever since I first heard them as a little kid in the kitchen.

He didn’t present it as heroism. He presented it as love and humour and fraternity. What people do when every other vestige of humanity is stripped away from them. What mattered to him was not your achievements, but how you treated other people. The people you were at school with, the people who lived around you. How you treated the poorest and weakest, that’s what mattered. That’s how we measured you and that’s how you had to measure up.

I won a Rhodes scholarship and I went over to tell my parents. I saw my mum and I said ‘I’ve won a Rhodes scholarship’. She said, ‘You’d better go see your father and tell him’. He was down the backyard turning the compost. I went down there and I said ‘Dad, I’ve got some news for you.’ He didn’t bother turning around; he said ‘what is it?’ I said, ‘Dad, I’ve won the Rhodes Scholarship.’ He said, ‘If you should meet with triumph or disaster, treat these two imposters just the same.’ And that was it. I said, ‘Okay.’

And he was right: it wasn’t a big thing. When I’ve had hard times – and I’ve had plenty of those – and when I’ve had defeats and failures, he made me realise they were illusions too. So that’s the sort of bloke he was. And I think he acquired all that from the experience of the camps.

Above: Watch Ramona Koval interview Richard Flangan at the Wheeler Centre.

Within every human breast consists the universe and contained within each of us is infinite love and the most murderous impulses. The Japanese, the Germans, us – we are all the same in this. We contain the beauty of Basho and the horror of the death railway. Surely that’s the point. That we are capable of both things.

I went to Japan in December last year, when I’d nearly finished the novel, to meet with the guards who’d worked on the death railway. And about five minutes before I met one, I realised he was actually the man who the Australians in my father’s camp, which was Weary Dunlop’s camp, knew as The Lizard. And he was the Ivan the Terrible of that camp. He’d been sentenced to death for war crimes after the war. He was the only man my father ever spoke of with violent intent. (Dunlop records in his diary, how he waited with a rock to kill him. And on this particular day the Lizard didn’t take the path he normally took.) The Lizard had his sentence commuted and then he was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He was a Korean. He actually went on to form an association of ex-Korean war criminals with the marvellous slogan, which we will recognise in Australia, of ‘moving forward’.

I hadn’t expected to meet someone from my father’s camp, far less the Lizard, who I didn’t know was still alive and was now going by his Korean name. And I met him in this office of his son’s taxi company in an outer suburb of Tokyo and I met a genial, courteous and generous old man who wished to try and atone for his past, although he couldn’t quite name his past completely. He was vague on some of the details of the past of the camps. But nevertheless, there was something genuine in his intent. And I was completely undone to sit in a room with this man.

My father, who was the gentlest man, said he dreamt of bayoneting him again and again for what he had done to the other men. There’s a thing in the book, which my father told, of him draping intestines around him.

I didn’t go to him in a spirit of accusation or a spirit of that sort. I wan’t there for vengeance. I was there because I wished to know his story. And his story was that he grew up in occupied Korea. His family suffered a lot of brutality. He was essentially press-ganged into being a guard at the age of fifteen and he went off to a training camp where they were beaten remorselessly. They would line all these Korean recruits up in two rows and they had to slap each other on the face, and I got him to slap me to show me how they did it. They had to slap and slap as hard as they could. At the end of the first day, he entered a deal with the guy next to him that they’d go soft on each other. And the Japanese officer who was overseeing the training came up and beat him as hard as he could around the kidneys with a steel rod so that he pissed blood that night. And he said, the next day I hit the man opposite me as hard as I could.

You have to sort of try and understand that. You have to understand how societies teach people that goodness and a lack of empathy are the same thing. We’ve seen that in Australia, where we have the cruel to be kind policies with the refugees. These things are a slow path over decades that finally can lead to great evil being done by people who in other circumstances aren’t evil.

Everyone I met said sorry. And you have to take that in that spirit: they’re willing to meet with you, they say sorry. I returned to Australia and within a few hours, my father rang and asked me what had happened. I told him that I felt people carried a shame and a guilt, and although they weren’t fully owning up to things, I felt it was genuine. He suddenly couldn’t talk, which was unlike him, and hung up the phone. He was getting very old and frail by then. He was ninety-eight.

Later that day, his mind was still very sharp but he lost all memory of his prisoner of war experience. And it was as if he were finally free.

I went back to the Thai–Burma railway with my brother Tim. We asked Dad to come – it was ten years ago – and he said, ‘I was lucky to get out of there once. I’m not going back’.

In the final years, I did spend a lot of time with my father, just talking about very simple things. What the actual hoes were like, how they sharpened the chisels. How do you burn a cholera corpose? What was the cholera compound actually like? Also, very abstract things. What is love? What is war? What is death? The novel was a way of being with my father.

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