This year’s Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, focusses on the atrocities committed in the building of the Death Railway during the Second World War. With nearly a quarter of a million forced labour employed by the Japanese, he explains why it matters to him, his father, a survivor of this Railway and India
Q. For your research of the novel, you went to Japan and met a guard called the Lizard who had overseen your father’s camp where he was a prisoner of war. What was the experience like?
A. The concept of evil doesn’t start with the Death Railway. It begins with people who promote half-ideas such as the life of some people is less than the life of other people. Hatred becomes acceptable and violence is justifiable. I was very sad to meet people whose lives had been so taken over. I felt the full sadness of a being human being and how we allow these things to happen. In the course of writing this book, it helped knowing a little bit about evil or goodness. But in the end, I am not sure about anything except this one thing that we lost countless lives who could have led good lives did evil things to one another.
pic courtesy/Ulf Andersen
Q. It took you 12 years and five drafts to write the novel. Given that your father had lived through the Burma Railway, when did he first talk about it to you?
A. I never knew a time when he didn’t talk about it and that’s not usual. Most people did not speak at all or a little about it. He talked about stories where good things happened or funny stories or gentle war stories. The humour, which in itself is interesting, is possibly one of the last things the human being has before it is taken from him. Their health and liberty are taken but humour remains till the end. There were many other stories he chose not to tell.
Relatives of victims near Hellfire walk past as a book cover of Prisoners of War by Patsy Adam-Smith is posted during the Anzac Day Memorial service in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Between May 1942 and August 1943, 13,000 POWs and 80,000 Asian forced labourers died on the infamous Thai/Burma Death Railway under the Japanese. Pic/Getty
Q. How old were you when you first realised that he was starved and exploited to a point of near-death?
A. You know it in the way old children know it. They are very accepting. It’s only a strange moment; suddenly, you realise that their experience may have been far more extraordinary than the ordinary people you know them as. To me one of the most shocking things was when I met a Japanese medical orderly who had actually been to my father’s camp. He said that it looked like a Buddhist hell; and that they were skeletons crawling around in the mud i.e. the Australian prisoners. I have never heard such a description of that camp by my father. That deeply shocked and upset me. But of course, when you are a skeleton crawling away in the mud, you don’t see yourself as an object of horror. You still see yourself as a full human being.
Q. Throughout the novel, there is mention of the Tamils or romusha. How much of this is unacknowledged?
A. India should talk about the Death Railway, as it is a great Indian tragedy. The story of the Tamils of Malaysia is really tragic. As it happened in the 20th century, which hardly makes it two generations away for most people, the accounts are horrific. Nobody knows the number of Tamils who died in the making of the Death Railway. Of the thousands of people who died during the making of the railway, the majority were Tamils. The prisoners of war had the structures of the army and the capacity to organise. But the tales of the Tamils that included wives and children on camps was so shocking. It is absolutely necessary and deserves to be told. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan, published by Chatto and Windus, Imprint of Random House, `599, hardbound. Available at leading bookstores and online stores.