The first Man Booker prize to allow American nominees has been won by an Australian. Richard Flanagan triumphed with The Road to the Deep North, a “magnificent novel of love and war” that tells the harrowing stories of prisoners and captors on the infamous Burma railway.
Flanagan followed Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey to become the third Australian to win the prize.
The philosopher AC Grayling, who chaired the judges, called the book “an absolutely superb novel, a really outstanding work of literature”.
But the novel is about much more than that, said Grayling. “It is not really a war novel, it is not about people shooting one another and bombs going off, it is much more about people, their experience and their relationships. What’s interesting about it is that it is very nuanced, as if everyone on the Burma railway, both sides of the story, were victims.”
The story is particularly poignant for the Tasmanian-born Flanagan because his father was a survivor of building the railway.
Flanagan’s book could seem like the conservative option, but he’s taken a fresh approach to a harrowing subject: this is a hard-won achievement, and a solid choice for the judges.
Ali Smith’s How to Be Both would also have made a worthy, very different winner, but Flanagan’s is in some ways a weightier book.
Twelve years in the writing, it draws on Flanagan’s father’s experience as a prisoner of war forced to work on the railway, and was finished on the day he died.
Raw and matter of fact, it is an almost overwhelming collage of suffering and death — more died on the railway than at Hiroshima; “more corpses than there are words in my novel”, as Flanagan has said — but also an exploration of the damage that extended beyond the war.
Flanagan writes of the survivors: “They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases.” Some remember nothing; for others the camps feel like “the only thing that had ever happened” to them.
He follows the stories of the Japanese guards too, some hanged for war crimes and some living into a comfortable old age. Japanese poetry is woven into the novel — The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the title of a work by the 17th-century master, Basho, as well as evoking the journey to hell experienced by so many of the characters.
The book is also an intense, unsentimental love story and a study of the shiftiness of identity. The main character, Dorrigo Evans, makes himself a hero precisely because of his conviction that he is not a good man. The war leaves him with a feeling of unreality in peacetime to match the terrible unreality of atrocities in war.
Flanagan’s sixth novel has sharpened his literary gaze: this is a truly impressive historical novel, in that it uses fiction to animate history and create a document that feels as necessary as it is vivid. The reader cannot look away. — © Guardian News & Media 2014