Miriam Gartner tells us about going to listen to the new Man Booker Prize Winner
Regent Street Apple Store Event on Wed, 16 October 2014
Thursday evening, 6 pm: the Apple Store on Regent Street is buzzing with people. Pushing my way through a crowd of iPhone enthusiasts, I head towards the back of the store, where about 50 literature fans have gathered to meet the man of the hour: Australian writer Richard Flanagan, who has just won the Man Booker Prize for his sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Although in possession of the most prestigious English literary award, Flanagan seems down-to-earth as he sits cross-legged in his chair. Who of the six shortlisted authors he had thought would win? “Me”, Flanagan answers with a laugh before admitting that he had in fact gone to the winner ceremony on Tuesday night “ready to excitedly applaud anyone else”. In his acceptance speech he said: “In Australia the Man Booker prize is seen as something of a chicken raffle. I just didn’t expect to end up being the chicken.”
Flanagan wanted the 2014 Prize not to just be remembered for his book, but for the extraordinary shortlist he was up against. AC Grayling, Chair of judges, justified the committee’s decision with “the beauty of the writing, the profoundly intelligent humanity, and the excoriating passages of great power”.
“If I was to approach such darkness, it would always fail if it didn’t allow for the possibility of hope.”
What is The Narrow Road to the Deep North all about, you ask? “For prisoner san byaku san jū go (335)”, it says in the enigmatic dedication – an allusion to Flanagan’s father, who was one of the Japanese PoWs forced to build the Thailand-Burma Death Railway during the Second World War. Writing The Narrow Road to the Deep North was Flanagan’s way of dealing with the traumatic experiences of his father, who died the day the author handed in the final manuscript.
The book depicts the lives of both PoWs and prison guards. For his research, Flanagan walked the Death Railway in Thailand and met former PoW guards in Japan, some of whom had guarded his father. “I don’t think they felt guilt, but a deep human shame,” Flanagan recalls, “I’d go on to these places hoping to be able to divine something about evil, about why people do these things, and in the end I’d come back and I realized I understood nothing.”
As expected, dealing with an event as appalling as the Death Railway came with many difficulties. “I wrote it as five different novels, and each of them was a dreadful failure. I wiped them off my hard drives, and I burned the manuscripts, and I would start again,” Flanagan says, “If I was to approach such darkness, it would always fail if it didn’t allow for the possibility of hope.”
That is why Flanagan wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story – to the liking of the judges, it seems. AC Grayling: “The two great themes from the origin of literature are love and war; this is a magnificent novel of love and war. Written in prose of extraordinary elegance and force, it bridges East and West, past and present, with a story of guilt and heroism.”
In 2002, the founding chapter of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was written on the back of beer coasters in a pub near Sydney Harbour Bridge, with a ballpoint pen borrowed from the barman. The product can now be seen in any UK bookshop window, 448 pages long and wrapped in a red-and-white cover – almost inconspicuous, if it was not for the big posters pronouncing “The Winner!” Beside his £52,500 prize, Flanagan can now predict an enormous increase in book sales. It can be said, after an author has spent 12 years developing such a extraordinary story, some reward seems appropriate.
Intrigued? Then listen to the full podcast of the event here.
Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Chatto & Windus 2014. £16.99