Richard Flanagan with Manu Joseph
Apekshita Varshney, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Official Blogger
Richard Flanagan believes that research is overrated, a rather surprising statement coming from a Man Booker Award winning novelist, widely considered to be one of the greatest living writers in the world today. Flanagan’s opinion about research however didn’t stop him travelling to Japan to meet a guard from the prisoner of war camp where his father was interned, as part of his preparation for his Booker Award winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
‘At a certain point, I made a strange request out of him,’ Flanagan related. ‘Since the Japanese practised a corporal punishment of slapping people till they collapsed, I persuaded him to slap me three times.’ Though the guard had answered all of Flanagan’s questions about the camps, he had no memory of the violence. It was thus unexpected that the guard nevertheless agreed to slap him. ‘His body stretched in a particular way, he cupped his hand, and even though he had forgotten the violence, his body remembered it,’ Flanagan revealed. On receiving the third blow, the whole room started to twist up and down, and he felt like ‘a 7.3 Richter-scale earthquake had hit Tokyo.’
After reading a passage from the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan quipped, ‘If a writer knew what the book was about, they wouldn’t write so many pages, they would just tweet it.’ Flanagan spent 12 years writing this very complex novel; yet evident throughout the discussion was the simplicity of his attitude to life. As a person, he described himself as concerned with the redemptive qualities of human intuition, hope, and love. He is also someone who celebrates both sides of the human personality – the light and the dark – citing the Japanese guard who had forgotten the violence: ‘Memory is what we choose to remember.’ Sending a message of hope, Flanagan said, ‘It is not sentimental to believe in hope, it is a mechanism of love,’ adding that, ‘We experience love at this moment and explode in the universe, but it vanishes a moment later.’
Flanagan’s quick wit and astute analysis were on full display during the session, as Joseph questioned him on the importance of the novel and the art of writing it. ‘A novel enables us to think about us in a way we can’t though poems, politics or philosophy. It follows a very abstract form,’ Flanagan said. Elucidating why many writers continue to choose a profession that keeps them struggling and poor, he explained, ‘Books are human, they come out of us and are not sacred, there will be wicked books as well. But the great and extraordinary power of a book is that it reminds us that we are never alone and that, aspiring to me, is no small thing.’
Flanagan is one of Australia’s most famous writers. For a certain generation of Indians, Australia is all about its mighty cricket team and a particular cricketer who went astray. Joseph joked, ‘On behalf of Australians, would you like to apologise for Brett Lee’s music,’ which Flanagan answered with an unentertaining ‘No.’
Flanagan concluded by offering respite to aspiring writers, ‘Literature has no responsibility other than not being boring. Its role isn’t to change the world, it is an aspect of life,’ he observed. ‘And though books are never going to be the mass phenomenon in the way Bollywood is, I feel that if writers can do their job with integrity, they will be heard across the oceans and they will defy time.
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor