Through Richard Flanagan’s writing flows the destructive power of love, the lyricism of horror, the revisioning of Tasmania, and the gaps between words and action.
High school dropout. Bush labourer. Rhodes scholar. River guide. Environmental activist. Film director. Man Booker prize winner. Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador. Whatever way you twist it, Richard Flanagan has had an unusual career. While Flanagan has often publicly stated that he believes writers should be separated from their defining adjectives, it’s hard to divorce him from Tasmanian. Given the tidal wave of support following his Booker Prize win in 2014, and the video of US President Barack Obama buying Flanagan’s book at a bookstore, former Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon may rue the day he said, “Richard Flanagan and his fiction is not welcomed in the new Tasmania” (ABC-TV News, 2004) but in the new new Tasmania, Flanagan continues to balance his fictional agenda with deeply felt personal essays on human and environmental rights, most recently challenging the Abbott government’s treatment of Gillian Triggs (The Guardian, 26 February 2015). At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014 he spoke of his novels as being “beyond morality”, but his work continues to argue for the many voices not being heard.
A River Runs Through it
At a recent Wheeler Centre event in Melbourne, Flanagan was asked how winning the Booker Prize had changed his life. He responded, in a typical gentle deflection, that he nearly drowned once, and that was a life-changing experience. He actually nearly drowned at least twice, probably more: with his mate Jim as he tried to kayak Bass Strait (And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?, 2011); as a river guide, leading an expedition down the Franklin, when he was wedged inside a rapid (Australian Story, ABC TV, 2008); and then there’s the story his brother Martin Flanagan tells about a childhood dare, when Martin and Tim goaded their younger brother to swim the mouth of a river.
When Richard returned, they denied seeing him doing it. So he set off again “until in the end he was just a set of nostrils and two flailing hands above the water” (The Age, 13 September 2014). Clearly it’s no surprise that the forces of nature, the tides of loss and hope and death and love, flow so clearly through his work:
I came to realise that most contemporary culture, including its literature, is made by people for whom the measure of the world is what is man-made. But the Franklin taught me this: that the measure of this world are all the things not made by man. And it was this sense that has come to inform me and all I have written since. (SMH Traveller, August 2013)
In Death of a River Guide, Harry, the father of Aljaz, shares his knowledge of the spirit of the river with his son. After a period of absence on the mainland, the river calls Aljaz back, tempting and seducing him, and he surrenders to “smelling the river, hearing it run, watching the rain mists rise from its valleys, drinking in the tea-coloured waters from his cupped hands”.
Flanagan was one of the first kayakers to go down the Franklin and there’s a rapid, Flanagan’s Surprise, named after him. In River Guide, though, there’s ambivalence. Aljaz notes the marking points of the river with disdain — Side Slip, Inception Reach, Severity Sounds — believing that to name things is a futile attempt at controlling fear, and he yearns for his early trips in the 1970s when “they experienced each day as a surprise, when people remembered the river as a whole, not as a collection of named sites that could be reduced to a series of photographs.” While the men in Flanagan’s debut novel don’t speak much, it’s the language of the river, the literacy of the landscape, that Harry and his father, and the river guides, can understand.
The Force, and Failure, of Words
In a conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014, Flanagan speaks of the role of the writer as being “to communicate the incommunicable”. Describing himself as “a child of the Death Railway”, he experienced first-hand the after-lives of returned prisoners of war, young men dealing with trauma and wounds that didn’t heal in their lives, passing them onto the next generations, inhabiting a place where the silence “left gaps” — gaps he attempts to fill in his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. What resounds is his clear compassion for those “caught up in the machinery of war”. Doing research, he met Japanese guards who wanted to ask his father for forgiveness. He called his father to relay their wishes and, from this point on, his father had no memory of the war: a blessed release. Flanagan finished Narrow Road on the day his father died.
Many of Flanagan’s central characters struggle with an inability to articulate, with their experiences and emotions — horror, despair, abandonment, grief, even joy — often greater than words will allow. In River Guide, when Harry finds his father killed by a fallen tree, expression is beyond him: “Not that Harry said any of these things or anything at all. Not that Harry even had words for what he thought. But Harry felt it and he felt it as a flame that consumed his body.” His son, Aljaz, learns from the very start about the power of words when in his early years deafness (due to pneumonia) means he can’t communicate with those around him, and his rage and confusion are palpable: “He now listened to the way in which words were used, the way one word could carry so many different meanings, how every word could be a tree full of fruit. But when he asked questions he was answered only with a quizzical shake of the head.”
This experience is mirrored in Flaganan’s own early years, his brother Martin relaying on Australian Story: “He had a serious hearing impediment early in his life and for the first six years … he was virtually deaf.” I can read this experience through all of Flanagan’s work, his ability to translate, to make us listen, his forceful prose, and his empathy for others struggling with language too. In The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Bojan swears in Italian rather than “profane his native tongue”. He carries stories from the war in Slovenia (as all the men working on the dam do), stories that he finally cannot tell. He says to Sonja, “You find a language. But I lose mine. And I never had enough words to tell people what I think, what I feel.”
In River Guide, when Aljaz is drowning, slowly dying in the river, his visions take him to Harry in the rainforest, felling timber and about to lose his thumb. As Old Bo and Smeggsy go to amputate, Aljaz pleads:
Then he let the axe fall.
Do I have to watch the rest?
Thank god for small mercies.
But Flanagan is generally not so merciful to the reader. We do have to watch the rest as his novels unfold, hear and feel the horror of lyrical moments, impossible to forget: the maggots crawling like “coconut on lamingtons” in the POW latrine; the dead baby’s eyelids that fall off when the mother tries to close them; the amputation of Jack Rainbow’s mangled flesh. While I may try to close my eyes, Flanagan doesn’t give me the chance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, choosing to read Rainbow’s amputation in its visceral detail and there’s no escaping it in the auditorium; when he speaks it, the horror is impossible to cast off.
The inability to express things in words often takes more solid shape through the characters’ attachment to, or disengagement from, various objects: the Mae-West-like picture of a girlfriend that a soldier carries through various horrors, to get him home, only to be gutted by a phone call; the bugle that Jimmy Bigelow plays while bodies burn in the funeral pyre, sold in a garage sale for a few bucks; the tea set that Sonja, at just three, deliberately drops on the ground to smash, then spends her returning years trying to piece back together, a legacy from her father who has “survived by camping in the fragments”; the toy-sized coffins that the children make in the orphanage where Mathinna is finally abandoned.
The Power of Love
Talking to Geordie Williamson, Flanagan mentions that when he started writing The Narrow Road, he was terrified about embarking on a love story because “everyone recognises a bad note”. It’s a curious comment because while his latest novel deals with the mystery of love, in all its forms (as he points out) — marital, sexual, friendship and camaraderie — his earlier novels are also about love in all its ugliness, joy and confusion. In River Guide, Couta Ho (Aljaz’s girlfriend) embodies strength and desire, the couple’s love played out in a wildly original game of semaphore flags, Couta holding them aloft and signalling to Aljaz what she wants: a blue flag with a white stripe signals “I am on fire”. Later, when they meet again, it’s the death of the relationship that’s flagged, and when their baby dies at two months, they no longer have a language, coded or otherwise, to share this pain.
In Gould’s Book of Fish, our unreliable guide tells us that “ … to make a book … is to learn that the only appropriate feeling to those who live within its pages is love”. But Flanagan doesn’t make it easy. Enduring the beatings by Bojan, Nakamura and The Goanna takes a reader to the limits, the violence and cruelty appearing monstrous — but the men themselves are not so easily conveyed as monsters, rather creatures who are a product of certain times and places and systemic abuse, and histories that any of us would struggle to understand. Although Flanagan does not wrench responsibility away from them, they all come from worlds where they have never experienced true freedom.
But it’s not all horror; there are small patches of light.
In Narrow Road, Dorrigo quotes poetry at key moments, even when his lovers chide him and desire to hear his own thoughts. Talking to Amy before he leaves for war, he believes it “was if life could be shown but never explained, and words — all the words that did not say things directly — were for him the most truthful”. If you talk to Flanagan, or see him on stage, he has an extraordinary capacity for remembering and reciting others’ words (apparently his father did too) and you get the sense that he is as happy living in their company as his own.
In all of his books, Flanagan questions whether there’s more truth to be found in facts versus stories, and how we go about creating personal, historical and cultural myths. His novels attempt to uncover the fictions that Tasmanian colonials (and contemporaries) have told about themselves, about Aboriginal people, about the environment, about convict settlement. In Gould’s Book of Fish, the “known history” and “official documents” become a burden too great to bear for Gould, “hauling a sled of lies called history through wilderness”, as he attempts to escape his incarceration, saved by Twopenny Sal, who tears the pages up and throws them on a funeral pyre. Both Dorrigo and Sir John Franklin feel the weight of the fictions they have created, or that others have imposed on them. In an echo of Dorrigo, Franklin says, “There was about … his position, his own faded ambitions, the utterly unjustified reputation he carried with him as an ever-heavier burden, something intolerable and entirely absurd.” In Wanting, Charles Dickens teeters on the brink of collapse (between desire and reason), finding that “his novels were true in a way life was not” and, yet, this is countered by his wife Catherine, who sees that Dickens had “made her that boring woman of his novels; she had become his heroine in her weakness and compliance and dullness”.
Flanagan’s answer to this crazy mayhem of human endeavours is the power, resilience and beauty of nature, always encroaching, reclaiming: the smouldering ruins of the Commandant’s Great Mah-Jong Hall; the workers’ camps at the dams overpowered by rainforest; the line of the Burma railway, the cause of so many deaths, disappearing into the jungle: “Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.”
As I traverse Flanagan’s novels and non-fiction again, there are continual pulls into the world around me. As I sit with Choi Sang-min in the final hours before his execution, it’s the day that Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan face the firing squad singing ‘Amazing Grace’. As Colonel Koto speaks of his pleasure at using the sword against a prisoner’s neck, a captured ISIS soldier on Four Courners spits out his desire to slice through a captive’s neck with a blunt knife. As The Doll goes on the run from a fraudulent charge of terrorism, I see young Muslim men condemned as guilty before proven innocent. As Flanagan’s POW veterans return to Australian shores unable to cope post-WWII, I hear Mandy in The Saturday Paper begging the Department of Veteran Affairs to help her husband, a returned soldier from Iraq, who is traumatised, violent, homeless, and unable to acclimatise to daily life.
When asked again at the Wheeler Centre about winning the Booker Prize, Flanagan is careful to point out that while he is lucky enough to have a place in the sun, for the moment, most writers spend their lives in the shadows and do their best work there. He sees his novels not as individual books but as part of one larger work, each flowing into and on from the other. Whether writing in the light or shade, Flanagan’s vision continues to resonate because of his willingness to take risks in all aspects of his writing and life, to challenge the powerful, and to use his words as tools of defiance:
Writing my novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North I came to conclude that great crimes like the Death Railway did not begin with the first beating or murder on that grim line of horror in 1943. They begin decades before with politicians, public figures and journalists promoting the idea of some people being less than people … For the idea of some people being less than people is poison to any society, and needs to be named as such in order to halt its spread before it turns the soul of a society septic. (The Guardian, 26 February 2015)
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of Australian Author.