I didn’t know it but I like Richard Flanagan, even though I’ve not read any of his books. Grandson of illiterates and descended from criminals transported to Tasmania, his father revered books but to be an author was not something he expected. A drowning accident in which he seemed to understand for a moment the interconnectedness of all things changed that. He continued working, but knew at a deeper level his real job in this life was to write.
I’ll rectify not reading any of his books. Order The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Man booker prize in 2014. I know I’ll love it. Flanagan talks about his dad taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Japanese and forced to build the Burmese railway that inspired, among others tales about Hellfire Pass and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Flanagan talks about visiting Thailand were the railway passed through and also visiting one of the guards in Japan that had tortured his dad. ‘The Lizard’ beat one of his father’s friends to death, with two other guards, in front of 300 prisoners, who were forced to stand impotently and watch. Man’s inhumanity to man. The Lizard, now an old man, Flanagan describes him as affable. But he wanted to experience what it was like for him, the torturer, to be in the Japanese army of Emperor Hirohito, where senior soldiers beating junior soldiers was a common form of control. Other races such as the Chinese were seen as inferior. In the Rape of Nanking of 1937-38, for example, an estimated civilian population of between 100 000 and 300 000 were killed and mutilated with up to 100 000 woman raped. Soldiers such as the British and Australian, including Flanagan’s father, who despite superior numbers surrendered Hong Kong without much of a fight were also seen as inferior. At the bottom of this chain of command was the prison guard, a level above other guards not racially pure such as the Koreans, but miles above the men they were guarding who were regarded as expendable. He got the Lizard to slap him across the face. A ritual form of humiliation. Yentob asks Flanagan if he found it difficult to enter into, indeed empathise with, people like the Lizard. Flanagan’s answer that he didn’t find it hard to find the monster within, which is wisdom and a watchword when the evil twins of indifference and inhumanity are let loose are they so often are in contemporary society.
Flanagan himself experienced corporate and state-sponsored hatred and persecution. In 2007 he published an article, Gunns: ‘Out of Control’ in The Tasmanian Times showing clearly the links between state and corporate interests and pollution of Tasmanian forests in which the company Gunns, which did 85% of tree felling, benefited a few select shareholders but at a devastating cost to the community and his country. His fictional account The Unknown Terrorist has its roots in that dark period in which he told Alan Yentob not only was it a terrorist offence to challenge corporate interests, but reporters reporting on those arrested for such terrorists offences could also be arrested as terrorists. Sometime fact can be stranger than fiction – and you really couldn’t make it up. Ted Genoways The Chain made similar claims about the way factory food is farmed and produced and protected by state interests in America –all in the name of jobs- but with devastating environmental and social impacts. The gagging of those involved in uncovering the hidden costs is also treated as a terrorist offence. I’ve went off track, but Richard Flanagan down under is on top of what it means to be human.