Archive for October, 2014

Aussie wins chicken raffle

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.” – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

For the second year running the Man Booker Prize has gone down under. Tasmanian Richard Flanagan won the £50,000 prize last night for his sixth novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus) Flanagan had previously won the Commonwealth Writers’ Award with Gould’s Book of Fish and also worked on the script of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia.

It is the fifth time an Australian has won what, according to Flanagan in his acceptance speech, is seen as “something of a chicken raffle”, following Thomas Keneally in 1982, Peter Carey in 1988 and 2001, and DBC Pierre in 2003.

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which takes its.title from a 1689 travelogue by the Japanese poet Basho, tells the story of an Australian prisoner-of-war who survives the building of the Burma railway in World War II – as did Flanagan’s father, Richard, one of ‘Dunlop’s Thousand‘, who spent more than three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

As the author has pointed out in interviews, more people died building the Thai-Burma Death Railway than died at Hiroshima. “More corpses than there are words in my novel,” as he puts it.

When the book was published in Australia, lazy comparisons with Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice irked Flanagan’s brother Martin:

I would suggest my brother’s book asks deeper questions than A Town like Alice. This is a novel in which a man who creates a living hell dies in peace, his conscience unmarked, while the man who endures the hell emerges with a sense of futility which is compounded by his public image as a war hero.

Their father died, at the age of 98, on the day Flanagan finally finished writing the book, after twelve years and five abandoned drafts.

“Flanagan’s writing courses like a river, sometimes black with mud, sludge and corpses, sometimes bright with moonlight,” according to Catherine Taylor in The Telegraph, while Rebecca Foster of The Bookbag described it as a “kaleidoscopic, empathetic novel” and “a new classic of war fiction in the making.”

So, in the first year Americans were eligible for the prize, the winner is a classic Commonwealth novel. A novel of a lifetime, of several lifetimes and thousands of lives, in fact. “Novels are life, or they are nothing,” as Flanagan also said in his acceptance speech.

It was never likely that the prize would go to an American straight away, but they will be back – there are a lot of them, and they are very competitive. And that will mean less room for others from around the Commonwealth.

It seems that AC Grayling had to use his casting vote at one point, although not for the final vote, which gave the prize to Flanagan by a majority of the six judges. His win will be a popular decision. Historical fiction does seem to be loved by the majority of readers and prize judges alike. (Even the rival to the Booker – The Goldsmiths Prize – is not immune to the hogweed of historical fiction.)

Not for me, I’m afraid. When I began following the Booker Prize in the 1990’s, it was as a source of quality contemporary fiction, rather than all those long-winded 19th Century classics that sit, tsundoku, on my shelves. (Not that it was the Booker’s finest decade. Jury after jury managed to miss all the most notable books of the decade: Birdsong, Regeneration, Trainspotting, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, A Suitable Boy, Enduring Love, Bridget Jones’s Diary…) Would it be churlish of me to ask for someone to found a new prize for contemporary literary fiction?

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October 15, 2014 at 2:35 pm Leave a comment


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