Tag Archives: Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

the_narrow_road_to_the_deep_north_novel

This book has received accolades, and been awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister’s literary award for fiction. Mostly, it has had rave reviews.

I am a dissenter. I had very mixed feelings as I read it. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot; many others have done that.

I think the middle part of the book is the great story. Flanagan tells the gruelling story of the Australian men who slaved to build the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War — how they were driven to death, forced to work in impossible conditions, with only the most rudimentary tools, almost no food or clothing, beaten, treated as less than human. The focus is on individual men, and their commander, Dorrigo Evans, who is a surgeon and struggles to keep them alive, to care for them when they are ill and dying. He loves them, he sacrifices himself for them, he pleads with the Japanese commander and officers to spare them from brutal floggings and forced marches and work on ‘the Line’  when they are close to death; and yet he fails in his love, because every day more and more of them die.

He is a paradoxical man, for though he is a hero, selfless in his dedication, he does not believe in his own goodness. He becomes an actor in his own life, compelled to go on trying to save his men.

Everything about their procession felt to the doctor an immense charade, with his the cruellest character: the man who proffered hope when there was none, in this hospital that was no hospital but a leaking shelter made up of rags hung over bamboo, the beds that were no beds but vermin-infested bamboo slats, the floor that was filth, and him the doctor with almost none of the necessities a doctor needed to cure his patients. He had a greasy red bandana, a cap on an angle and a dubious authority with which to heal.

The characterisation of Dorrigo and his men is unflinching, showing them in all their motley humanity, unlikely heroes. The interpretation of their heroism is interesting and challenging. For they act, it is insisted, not out of essential goodness or even compassion, but out of a collective instinct to survive. This is more so, I think, for the men than for Dorrigo, because we are allowed a space where we can believe in Dorrigo’s love and self-sacrifice, even though he does not believe in it himself.

It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed on their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And they only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.

Yet, I want to insist that there is love, compassion, in their small acts of kindness and tenderness. Sometimes, in this story, I feel there is too much analysis, too much insistence on the authorial point of view, which comes through in the interpretation of the men’s actions.

A bigger question for me hangs over the stories around the central war story. Dorrigo is again the main character, deeply flawed by his own lack of self belief. This is externalised in his marriage, which is hollow, because he has fallen in love with Amy, who is married to his uncle. He loses her but never gets over her, nor she him. Where I lose belief in the narrative is  the insistent characterisation of Dorrigo as a man who acts his own life. We are told he has become a national hero, famed for his war service and for his subsequent career as a surgeon. He is a philanderer, loved not only by his wife but by the women he seduces, yet none of it has meaning for him, not even his children. I find myself wondering, if indeed he is so lacking in self-belief, how he manages to sustain the life that he does.

Another aspect of the story that disturbs me is the portrayal of the Japanese officers. We are given their points of view, both during the building of the Line, and in the lives of some of them after the war. They tell us that they act as they do because of the equation that the Emperor is a god who must be obeyed at all costs, and that the Allied prisoners are less than human and deserve to suffer and die because they acted ignobly by surrendering rather than taking their own lives. There are gestures towards redemption in the post-war lives of a couple of them, but this is left unresolved. I question Flanagan’s licence to enter the consciousness of these Others and portray their motivation. How can he, or any of us, know how it was to be them, within that culture, at that time? How can we speak for them? I wonder what a Japanese reviewer would say of this book.

There are other things about the book I am disturbed or irritated by, but that’s enough for now! Many readers may disagree with me.

 

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The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2012

Three hearty cheers! And congratulations to Gillian Mears, for winning the PM’s award for her novel, Foal’s Bread. This follows on the gold medal awarded by the ALS (Association for the Study of Australian Literature).  I am delighted. I predicted, when I reviewed this book (see my post, “Best Australian Novel for 2011” that it would win the Miles Franklin this year. Well, as we all know, it didn’t; it was shortlisted, but Anna Funder’s All that I Am won. I read Funder’s best-selling novel on my recent trip to Sydney, and will review it soon.

I have to say, in brief, that I much prefer Foal’s Bread. Which is not a criticism of All that I  Am, just an acknowledgement of my subjective preference. As I  have said in a couple of recent posts/comments, reviewing is a very subjective process, as is judging. I have the luxury of judging freely, without the responsibility of awarding a major prize to one author, and denying it to those who are short-listed. So this is my space to say who my winner is.

I want to congratulate Gillian Mears with all my heart, and to say that I think this is a great and original novel, on a par with the best of Henry Handel Richardson, Randolf Stow, Patrick White, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Kim Scott, and other Australian writers who’ve won the hearts and minds of readers over the years by capturing our (colonial/indigenous/multicultural) spirit, our landscape and our history in their worlds of fiction. Gillian Mears, in this masterpiece, becomes one of the greats, the original and visionary mythmakers of the many ways of being Australian.

Good on you, Gillian. I hope you write another novel.

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Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy challenges what it means to be human

At last I’ve read the book that won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, and that has received rave reviews. The first thing I want to say is that this book  towers above the forest of literary fiction and overshadows many that have won awards and been best sellers.

There are plenty of reviews that give a good summary of the plot, and I won’t attempt that here, since I hope you will read it for yourself. Suffice it to say it is about a little Moscow boy of four, Romochka,  who is abandoned by his family, goes out looking for food and follows a feral dog, who is joined by two of her family. She takes him to their lair on the outskirts of the city. As they enter the basement of the old ruined church, he ‘crossed a border that is, usually, impassable—not even imaginable’ where he meets the rest of her family, four small puppies, and she allows him to approach the nesting corner and cleans his face. Then he manages to pull one of the puppies off the teat and drinks. So begins his adoption into the canine world, and gradually he learns to think, move and behave like a dog, learns to run with the clan and hunt for food, and even to enter the  city alleyways and beg food from humans, which he takes back for his family. Yet he doesn’t lose his words, his ability to think symbolically, to remember and reflect, and so he remains, under the learned dog self, a human boy.

I have never read a book like this, that crosses the border between human and animal so convincingly, that enters into the world of animals—not wild animals, but ones that live on the fringe of the human world yet are not domesticated—so completely, that imagines it so vividly and viscerally that it is as if you are there yourself, becoming dog, yet sometimes remembering and mourning your human self. Until, one day, your world starts to change. Just when you are happy as a dog, and have mastered the art of moving in the forest and on the streets with your dog siblings, hunting, foraging, begging, stealing, have learned the codes of the feral animal kingdom and how to work the human street kingdom, an interloper is brought into the nest—a human baby, much younger and more vulnerable than you were when you came here. A little baby boy. Gradually you stop resenting him, you undress him and allow Mamochka to clean him up, you begin to play with him and to love him, and you take responsibility for protecting his vulnerable naked body, and go out searching and stealing clothes and even toys for him, so that he plays with you like a human toddler, yet remains dog.

The third phase of the story is the most disturbing and tragic, and I’ll try not to give too mamy spoilers here. Suffice it to say that Romochka is cornered and faced with a terrible choice, in the closing acts of this animal-human drama, and you are left wondering what will become of him, whether his losses will be greater than his gains, and whether the lessons he has learned in the dog world, and the gifts he has been so generously and unconditionally given, will be destroyed, or whether, although he has lost that untroubled joy of the dog world, he will become a better kind of human, one who knows and honours both worlds.

And so, Hornung brings us, through story, to a knowing and a questioning that no straight didactic prose could enable. This is the power of fiction: to create a world we have neither known nor imagined, to enter us into that world, so that we step out from our ordinary living and imagining and become different—more aware, more stimulated, more excited, more saddened or joyful than we were before we opened the book. Those emotional effects may not last, but the story has entered our soul, has touched us, and thus has changed our life.

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