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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan - Shortlist author interview

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan - Shortlist author interview

We ask Richard Flanagan about The Narrow Road to the Deep North

George Orwell claimed that “Good writing is like a windowpane.” Is it or can it be opaque too?

Somewhere in Tristram Shandy I seem to recall a wild scrawl that Sterne says represents his novel. Zola, rather marvellously, used the same scrawl as the epigraph for one of his books. Good writing can be a clear windowpane or a page of block ink (Sterne again), a straight line or a lunatic squiggle. Clarity is a style, but it is only one of many.

Opaqueness, weight, lightness, daftness, darkness and madness – anything can be made to work. All writing seeks to achieve a transparency between a writer's words and their soul. But on the rare occasions a writer achieves this, they discover in their soul not what they know, but all that they don't – all the living and the dead, all love and all hate, goodness, evil, madness, rage and transcendence; in short the terrifying, exhilarating universe that is us. The ways of registering that universe are many, and all that matters is that good writing should simply be good, and what is good is finally the judgement of the reader.

If you had no readers would you still write?

Fool that I am, I probably would. But it is a guarantee of nothing, evidence perhaps only of a necessary failure of character.

There are remarkable writers who write without readers in the entirely implausible expectation that one day they will be read – Vasily Grossman writing Forever Flowing in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s; or Bulgakov writing The Master and Margarita in the late 1930s. Both men were dying in the darkness of a tyranny that seemed limitless. Both men were sustained by love, and by a belief that their works would outlast that darkness because they had an imperishable soul. Manuscripts, Bulgakov famously observed, do not burn. Of Grossman's book, the head of the KGB observed, “This book must not be read for 300 years.” Which would seem to suggest that even he knew that, inevitably, it would be read.

The problem is that if the greatest writers have a faith that readers will find their books, so too do the worst. Writing is the most delusional vanity. We remember Grossman and Bulgakov's magnificent commitment, but forget the many thousands who were no less committed but whom no one ever read. Could it be that the successful writer is simply the one with whom the public comes to share the same delusion?

Your title, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is borrowed from the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. How does a 17th-century travelogue describing a journey through Japan's remote north east relate to the Burma railway during the second World War?

My father was a Japanese POW who worked as a slave labourer on the Death Railway, a crime against humanity that saw more people die than the bomb killed at either Nagasaki or Hiroshima. If Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North is rightly celebrated as one of the high points of Japanese culture, my father's experience was of one of its lowest.

It is for readers and God to judge, but for the novelist only to point. To escape the error of judgement, I sought to use the forms and tropes of Japanese literature – which I love – to help in the futile but necessary task of seeking to divine the undivinable. Murder, hate and horror are as deeply buried in the human heart as love and beauty, perhaps more so, and in truth they're rather entwined, and if you tried to separate them, you'd be missing what was most important and human. My novel is dedicated to prisoner san byaku san ju go, my father's Japanese prison number, 335, that I learnt growing up as his son – a child of the narrow road to the deep north.