Communicating the Incommunicable: celebrating the writing of Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize for Narrow Road to the Deep North

2014 Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan

A River Runs Through it

At a 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.

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”.

The Force, and Failure, of Words

Richard Flanagan and Geordie Williamson at Varuna/Sydney Writers Festival

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 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.

Self-inflicted Fictions

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”.

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)

A version of this article originally appeared in Australian Author.

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Kirsten Krauth

Kirsten Krauth

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Author. Arts journalist. Latest novel ALMOST A MIRROR shortlisted Penguin Literary Prize, out April. Recent profiles Ben Folds, Sian Clifford. kirstenkrauth.com