You are here

Richard Flanagan's winning ways

Richard Flanagan's winning ways

Richard Flanagan, the new Man Booker laureate after being awarded the prize on Tuesday night, has an appropriately winning way with words. After greeting the Duchess of Cornwall – who presented the prize – with a protocol-defying hug he commented ‘Well, she seemed a sweet woman and she was very nice’, and indeed she didn't seem in the slightest bit surprised or put out. He then went on to deliver one of the most heartfelt and generous winner's speeches in recent memory which ended in a group hug with his fellow shortlisted authors. He revealed that ‘in Australia the Man Booker is sometimes seen as something of a chicken raffle. I just didn't expect to end up the chicken.’ Later, when asked about the fear that American novelists would swamp the prize, he stated his belief that literature does not recognise national boundaries: ‘To talk about Australian novelists makes as much sense as talking about Angolan chiropodists to me.’ Flanagan talks as well as he writes.

The inspiration for Flanagan's book was his father, a survivor of the Burma ‘Death Railway’. In a moving article before the award dinner, Flanagan described going to Japan and meeting one of his father's guards, known as The Lizard. He was, said Flanagan, ‘the only man I ever heard my father – a gentle, peaceful man – talk of with violent intent’. The encounter, bizarrely in a taxi office, was extraordinary: ‘Near the end of our meeting, I asked him to slap me. Violent face slapping – known as binta – was the immediate form of punishment in the camps, doled out frequently and viciously. On the third blow, the taxi office began to shake and toss violently, like a dinghy in a wild sea. In one of those coincidences in which reality delights but fiction, for fear of being unrealistic, never permits, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo.’

Flanagan has wasted no time in using his new high profile either. Flanagan, a Tasmanian and an environmentalist, announced that he was ‘ashamed to be an Australian’ in response to his country's prime minister, Tony Abbott, opening a new mine with the words ‘coal is good for humanity’. As Flanagan's wining book The Narrow Road to the Deep North attests, ‘humanity’ in its best and worst incarnations is his special subject.

One for trivia fans: The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the longest title of any Man Booker winning book.

Flanagan is the third Australian winner of the Man Booker – after Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey (twice). What has not been noticed though in the aftermath of his win is the echoes of Keneally's Schindler's Ark (winner in 1982) that can be found in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Both books are set during the Second World War, both involve central characters (Oskar Schindler and Dorrigo Evans) who endeavour to protect others from the brutality of their oppressors, and both men are reluctant heroes for whom being fêted is an ordeal. Coincidentally both Flanagan and Keneally are also screenwriters. Flanagan has worked on, among others, Baz Luhrmann's epic drama Australia. One of the other writers on that film was Ronald Harwood, a long-time trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation, who has just stepped down from the position.

The editor of Schindler's Ark was Ion Trewin, then an esteemed publisher and since 2006 the Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. As many readers will know, Ion has recently been diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Ion has always been a friend of writers, passionately committed to the prize and to the best of literature, and a gentle and reassuring guide to judges and authors alike. This column would like to add its own thanks to a generous, wise and deeply humane man.