Booker winner Richard Flanagan on his father's time on the Death Railway: "I felt the weight of that utterly pointless crime against humanity"
As the author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is profiled on BBC1's Imagine, he explains how his dad's quirks hid a deeply traumatic experience as an Australian PoW slave labourer on Japan's Burma Railway during the Second World War
You’d think that your soul would be in neutral, but sometimes you feel too much.” In a particularly Australian turn of phrase, he refers to the experience as being, “sort of like having a bowel motion while someone asks you questions”. Was taking a camera crew to the Death Railway in some way like profaning holy ground? “No. It would be profane to make it a sacred site,” he says. “The railway is just earth, stone and bamboo. What’s awful is not that it’s sacred, but that it’s without meaning. That in the end it was all for nothing.”
Australia defines itself by wars, and Flanagan is sensitive to the dangers of using past suffering to excuse contemporary cruelties. “It matters to me tremendously that we don’t forget those who died,” he says. “But there is a danger when you create a cult of victimhood. It starts the idea that we have moral superiority because of our suffering, and therefore other people must be morally inferior.
Every Anzac Day,” Flanagan continues, “we Australians religiously intone, ‘Lest we forget’, but the truth is we forget every time why we were there in Gallipoli in the First World War. We were dying for one empire, invading another empire at the other end of the world. In that sense, there is a connection between the glorification of Gallipoli and the cruelty Australia shows towards refugees.”
As in the Gallipoli campaign, the brunt of the suffering in Burma was borne by troops who were barely out of boyhood. “The Australians were very young,” says Flanagan. “Mostly children.” Yet those young men’s friendships, the bonds they forged and the sacrifices they made for each other, shine a narrow shaft of light out of one of the darkest moments of 20th-century history.
“Dad came to think that the camp was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Flanagan says. “He encountered something extraordinary in the nature of humanity and came to see the experience as simply one of love. We can temper our memories with hope and despair and with the capacity for transcendence. My father chose transcendence. He found a reason to be hopeful.”