Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 27 November 2014
Page: 9627

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (19:22): Tonight I would like to pay tribute to an incredible writer, who has recently been awarded The 2014 Man Booker prize for his extraordinary achievement in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan.

A people's history is scored in moments—resonant moments that are experienced, remembered, shared and retold. These moments, like Gallipoli and the Sydney Olympics, are immediately and intuitively understood as confirming our preconceptions, or perhaps our misconceptions, about ourselves. But other moments no less intrinsic to our national tapestry jar with those tightly clasped self-beliefs. These moments were not believed by those who were there and are incapable of being understood by those who were not.

Such moments are not shared so widely in our experience. Maybe this is why a people rely so heavily on their storytellers to find the dark, opaque moments, weaving them into the national story despite their cruelty and inscrutability. Richard Flanagan has written some of those moments, our terrible moments, in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, named after a work of 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Basho.

AC Grayling, the chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, called The Narrow Road to the Deep North a magnificent novel of love and war, written in prose of extraordinary elegance and force. Richard is only the fourth Australian, and the first Tasmanian, to win the highly coveted Man Booker prize, a literary prize awarded annually for the best original English language novel

This year the prize was expanded. In the past it was restricted to novels written in English by citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. Now it includes all authors writing in English regardless of their country of origin. So Richard is the first winner of a truly international Man Booker prize.

In 1994 a grant from Arts Tasmania enabled Richard to publish Death of a River Guide. Launching the career of an Australian literary genius cost us only $14,000. Twenty years, six novels and two film scripts later the rest of the world has embraced his talent. Chris Wallace described this win as 'a matter of pride for all thinking Australians'. He said:

It's down to his prodigious talent, of course, but also to a country which, while some pretend it's all and only about mining and sport, has nurtured some great creative talents.

Perhaps tonight it is more appropriate to recognise the debt Tasmania owes to Richard, a provocative and persuasive supporter of Tasmania's unique cultural story. His novels envelop us in rich, dark and wondrous narratives of Tasmania, an island at the end of the world, greatly underestimated and often misunderstood. But not underestimated by Richard. He said:

I've grown up in a place where the measure of everything extraordinary was not man-made and it does lead you to think differently about human beings. To live in a city is to live overwhelmed by extraordinary objects. But just outside the little town where I grew up, there was the oldest living thing on earth: a huge tree that was 12,000 years old.

Richard Flanagan understands the power and importance of Tasmanian and Australian moments. He understands us beautifully. The great writers, the writers who discover masterpieces within themselves, the Man Booker prizewinners, lend us the means to feel the pain and fear of love and war. The Narrow Road to the Deep North does this. We feel painful, terrible feelings—feelings that resonate. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North he has written moments of horror that should be indescribable, moments of love and war that must be inconceivable, torment that would be unspeakable and loss that might be impossible.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a love story crafted from the experiences of Richard's family. Arch Flanagan was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp on the Burmese-Thai border during World War II. Arch ended up on the infamous Thai-Burma railway as part of Edward 'Weary' Dunlop's thousand. His son's novel is not a replica of his father's experiences but draws instead on the living nightmare Arch and his comrades suffered on the Thai-Burma death railway, a war crime in which the Imperial Japanese Army used Allied prisoners of war and conscripted Asian workers as slave labour.

One hundred thousand men of different nationalities, possibly more, died laying 400 kilometres of track on this death railway—a futile attempt to push a rail link through some of the world's most impenetrable jungle. More than 2,700 of those who perished were Australian. In the end Arch Flanagan was not one of the fallen. His triumph was his survival. He made it back to Tasmania and with his beloved Helen raised an incredible family of six and built a life, a long life. Arch died just shy of his 99th birthday, the very same day, after 12 years of struggle, his son Richard finished the manuscript of this extraordinary book.

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard tells a story of fiction deeply intertwined with a truth that many families in Australia connect with. Similar stories sit like ghosts within the families of death railway survivors. They are stories of horror often untold. Whilst I still have waiting for me the reading of The Narrow Road to the Deep North—a pleasure I will take up this summer—my partner, Colin Grubb, has shared with me his feelings and thoughts on the masterpiece. He told me:

It's an incredible story that draws you in as it moves back and forth in time and location.

Richard writes with a wonderful sense of place and time, he can draw poetry out of the most dreadful image, the book is both beautiful and brutal at the same time.

He tells a sun drenched love story and then turns the story to the deep horrors of the jungle in WW2 and the suffering of Australian POWs on the Thai/Burma railroad.

An amazing twist is how we experience the horrors of war and its aftermath from multiple perspectives, the prisoners story, the Japanese officer's story and the indentured Korean guards story, this is amazing writing.

Many people say a book is so good that they can't put it down, Narrow Road is just that but many times it gets so intense that you do actually need to put it down and have a little breather, a little processing time then you are drawn back to it.

Some passages are very confronting, but I found you need to go through these, you have to go through the 'jungle', they are part of the brutal reality that these men lived and you do need to stay with the story.

The months since I finished reading this novel I have thought about the story many times, you can't get it out of your mind. I think of all those old mates of my dad who propped up the bar at the local RSL, all those experiences they never spoke of because no-one back home could possibly understand, after reading this book you can begin to understand.

I read the last line and closed this book thinking 'masterpiece' and that's exactly what it is.

I really think Colin's depiction of this masterpiece of a book shows exactly why it has won the Man Booker prize. This book is an extraordinary achievement. And how lucky we are to have in Australia—indeed he is from my beautiful home state of Tasmania—this incredible writer, Richard Flanagan!

Richard is a man whose incisive speech belies sometimes the breathtaking and often lyrical metaphors that mark his writing. A truly Tasmanian character, in his acceptance speech for the prize, Richard said:

I do not come out of a literary tradition. I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate.

After receiving the Man Booker prize award, and doing hundreds of interviews, he was asked by one reporter about Australia's attitude to the environment—in response to Tony Abbott's comments about coal being good for humanity. Richard said he is ashamed, in this respect, to be an Australian, when this is brought up. The media went to town on this comment, as if this was all he said.

Well, Richard is not alone there. I, too, feel ashamed when we have the leader of this nation making such foolish and embarrassing claims, which were coupled by his attempt to not allow climate change on the G20 agenda in Brisbane. What kind of message about Australia and our care for our environment and commitment to doing our part to slow global warming does this send to the world?

Richard was right when he said Australia has the most extraordinary environment. He spoke frankly for so many of us when he said he did not understand why this government seemed committed to destroying what we have that is unique in the world. Richard said:

The horror of the Death Railway doesn't begin with the first beating, or the first execution. It begins decades earlier when the idea is put abroad in society by politicians, public figures, writers, and journalists that some people are less than people. And in Australia today strong voices of the powerful are being raised, saying some people are less than people. It is poison to the soul of a society, and it should be named as such, and its evils opposed and ended.

It is with great pride as an Australian and as a Tasmanian that I congratulate Richard on his success. I believe his work has inspired a new generation of Tasmanians to stay, to build a future Tasmania, and to embrace the kinks and heal the fractures in our history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North speaks of the love affair our nation has with literature. It is a love affair which Richard contributes admirably to.

Finally, I would like to pay my sympathies on the recent passing of Richard's mother Helen, and give my deepest condolences to the Flanagan family. May she rest in peace.