WWII POWs Build A Deathly Railway In 'The Narrow Road'

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NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to Richard Flanagan, author of the new book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Richard Flanagan is an award-winning Australian author who may be in line for another big prize for his new book. The book is called "The Narrow Road To The Deep North," and it's been nominated for a Booker prize. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, terrifying account of Australian soldiers in the second world war. The terrifying part is their time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where most of them died building the Thai-Burma Railway, the railway of death. Threaded through that history is the life of one man - a war hero, an army surgeon named Dorrigo Evans. Richard Flanagan joins us from Hobart in Tasmania. I have never been there, but Tasmania is an island off Australia. Welcome.

RICHARD FLANAGAN: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Dorrigo Evans is born in Tasmania, and he lives in a battered, old town called Cleveland. I wonder if you could just read to us about Tasmania and Cleveland and Dorrigo Evans' beginnings.

FLANAGAN: (Reading) All this was in the days when the world was wide and the island of Tasmania was still the world. And of its many remote and forgotten outposts, few were more forgotten and remote than Cleveland, the hamlet of 40-or-so souls where Dorrigo Evans lived.

WERTHEIMER: We meet Dorrigo Evans as a child in the place where he began, that you just described, and in the next few pages, you show us what you're going to do in the book. You jump ahead 20 years and then ahead 50 years. Then you jump back 30 years. How come you did it like that?

FLANAGAN: I grew up very strongly with this sense of time being circular, that it constantly returned upon itself. And that was the way people told stories here. And when I came to start writing novels, that was the way in which it seemed apparent and obvious that you could be most true to both the past, the present and the future.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we're choosing quotations from the early part of the book. Here's another one. This is from page 10, and it's from one of the many descriptions of Evans in bed with a woman named Amy. And he is reciting the poem called "Ulysses" by Alfred Tennyson to her and trying to explain it.

FLANAGAN: (Reading) He was looking past Amy's naked body over the crescent line between her chest and hip, haloed with tiny hairs, to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea that ran away from his gaze into spread-eagle clouds. It was as if it were waiting for him.

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.

Why do you love words so, he heard Amy ask.

WERTHEIMER: Now, clearly you also - you love words. I wondered, were you thinking of the - sort of the form of Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" when you wrote this book? I mean, this book is, in some respects, a long poem.

FLANAGAN: Oh, that's very kind of you to say, Linda. Look, my grandparents were illiterate. The descriptions of Cleveland, that little town which I described in that first reading, that's where my grandparents lived, and that's where my father grew up. My father was the first to read in his family, and he said to me that words were the first beautiful thing he ever knew. And he used to recite great slabs of poetry 'til his death at the age of 98. And in this book, there's the contrast of two high forms of poetry, 19th-century English poetry and classical Japanese poetry, which the various Japanese characters within the book feel as moved by as Dorrigo Evans does by Byron and Tennyson and Shakespeare.

WERTHEIMER: I noticed that you pinched the title of the book from the 17th-century haiku master Basho. Are you an admirer of haiku?

FLANAGAN: I am an admirer of haiku, and I'm a great admirer of Japanese literature in general. I think if "The Narrow Road To The Deep North" is one of the high points of Japanese culture, then the experience of my father, who was a slave laborer on the Death Railway, represents one of its low points. That was one of the great war crimes somewhere between 100 and 200,000 people died on the making of that now largely forgotten railway to nowhere. And so I wanted to use the forms and tropes of all that was best and most beautiful in the culture to describe what was most base and most terrible because it seemed to me these two things were very closely entwined, not just in Japanese culture, but within every human heart.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about your dad. He was, I understand, a POW at this camp.

FLANAGAN: That's right. I mean, my father was with a group that's sort of a now near-mythical group called the Dunlop's Thousand led by a surgeon. And I guess I grew up with his stories and also his anxieties, also his compassion. I remember learning, very early on, the Japanese word sanbyaku-sanjuugo, which were his Japanese prisoner number, 335, that he had to answer to. And I realized at a certain point that I would have to attempt to write something about this experience, really, if I was to continue to be a writer.

WERTHEIMER: A lot of the material in the book, did it come from your dad's stories? Did he know about it, read it? What did he think about it?

FLANAGAN: I grew up with some of these stories, but he told them in a particular way that focused on the humor and the compassion, and there was much he didn't tell us. But I guess I was imbued with a certain notion, a certain spirit, about his experience.

WERTHEIMER: Richard Flanagan, his book is called "The Narrow Road To The Deep North." This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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