I’m not a very interesting person,” says Richard Flanagan. “I’m the least interesting person I know.” But watch Alan Yentob’s Imagine special on the 55-year-old Australian author, the 2014 Booker Prize winner for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and you are very likely to disagree.
More than ten years in the writing, the novel draws deeply on his father Archie’s Second World War experiences as one of thousands of Australian PoW slave labourers on Japan’s Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway. Writing it has been both a triumph and a poignant experience for Flanagan. Two days after he finished it, Archie died.
Two weeks after it won the Booker Prize, his mother was dead as well. “I just cancelled everything,” Flanagan says from his Tasmanian home. “So when Alan and the Imagine team arrived months later, I was in an unusual place.” The Death Railway was driven for more than 250 miles through the Thai and Burmese jungle in 1943 as the Japanese sought to open up an invasion route to British India.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll have some idea of the horrors of existence on what the men called “the Line”, including summary executions, starvation, beatings and disease. “Growing up, there were so many oddities of behaviour that were a consequence of Dad’s experiences,” says Flanagan. “He would get upset if clothes were folded incorrectly, with the fold on the inside and not the outside.”
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, this simple mistake, contravening Japanese regulations, leads directly to an appalling and barbarous death. The incident is borrowed from something that happened to Archie. “He was rifle-butted in the face for having the fold on his blanket the wrong way round,” says Flanagan. “He only told me a few years ago. It was then that I finally understood about the clothes.”
Flanagan has discovered that other surviving PoWs didn’t speak about what happened. “It’s extraordinarily sad. Since the book has come out, I’ve been amazed by the number of people who have come up to me and said they hadn’t known their father had been on the Death Railway.” Flanagan had already visited what remains of the railway when he was researching the novel.
“I wasn’t emotional,” he says. “I was like a poet; I wanted to apprehend that world in all its minute detail, every smell and sound – the light, the humidity, the hues of the bamboo. But when I went back again for Imagine, I felt the weight of that utterly pointless crime against humanity, the enormous sadness of those who suffered and those who were made to inflict suffering.