Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:59 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:59 | SYDNEY

Richard Flanagan on war and the Australian character



12 November 2013 14:53

I haven't read Richard Flanagan's new novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but it barely mattered last night as I listened to the author talk with Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove about his book, based partly on his father's experiences as a prisoner in the Thai-Burma railway POW camps. You can hear their conversation below.

Flanagan calls The Narrow Road to the Deep North 'a book about love written in the shadow of my father's dying'. Flanagan finished the book on the day his dad died. 

Flanagan says the main character in his book is not based on famed surgeon and leader among Thai-Burma railway camp prisoners Weary Dunlop, who he says was too extraordinary a character for fiction. He says (14:00) he is suspicious of any story suggesting one country's national character is superior to another, yet he did find that Weary Dunlop's camp was run in a more egalitarian spirit than the British camps.

At about the 16 minute mark, Flanagan tells an extraordinary story about traveling to Tokyo for research and confronting 'the Lizard', an old Japanese man who had been one of the most notoriously cruel guards in the camps. The story ends with Flanagan saying that 'Wherever evil was, it wasn't in that room with me and that old man, who was at that point very frightened.'

Given that the conversation took place on Remembrance Day, I also couldn't help comparing Flanagan's thoughts on this subject with the piece we ran yesterday by historian Joan Beaumont. Flanagan is worried that our national way of remembering is too self-flattering (26:00), yet Beaumont pointed out that, contrary to the way World War I veterans themselves wanted their service remembered, modern generations tend to focus much more on Australia's defeats in that war.


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