Richard Flanagan

Published by Knopf 2023

RRP $35.00

Every so often you come across a book that defies easy categorisation, but which, when finished makes you feel that you have just experienced something unique and profound, but are unsure if you fully understood it.

I’ve always loved the saying that, ‘if you remember the 1960’s you weren’t there.’ A similar comment might be made in relation to Question 7, which is, ‘if you fully understood Question 7, you didn’t read it.’ Although, I must quickly add that any deficiency of reader understanding will have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. It’s just that it deals with questions and issues that, if we are honest with ourselves, defy complete understanding. What is the meaning of life and our own lives? What happened in the past to get us where we are today?

It takes a brilliant, imaginative writer such as Flanagan to seamlessly weave, apparently unrelated issues together, including both the personal and the historical. Issues such as, the dropping of the A bomb on Hiroshima, how he was named Richard and not Daniel, how his own father was held as a slave labouring prisoner of war in Japan, the torrid love affair between H G Wells and Rebecca West, the brutal treatment of the Tasmanian First Nations people, and his own near-death experience as a 21-year-old on the Franklin River.

The fly cover says this about Flanagan:

“Richard Flanagan’s novels have received numerous honours and are published in forty-two countries. He won the Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North and the Commonwealth Prize for Gould’s Book of Faith. A rapid on the Franklin River is named after him.”

Flanagan begins the narrative by telling the reader about a trip to Japan in 2012 where he visited the site of the Ohama Camp, where his father had been interred as a prisoner of the Japanese, and where he and his fellow inmates were forced to work in a coal mine as slave labourers. We then get a hint of what is to come when we find out that nothing of the camp remains, even in the memory of his guide, and that in fact the site is now occupied by a brothel, misnamed as a ‘love hotel’:

“…that catered for quick opportunistic sex in tiny rooms that allowed for sexual release and deliberately little else. What remained, or rather what existed, was only the oblivion of pleasure in another’s arms-the same oblivion that simultaneously prefigures and denies death.”

In the same chapter we are introduced to Major Thomas Ferebee, the bombardier who released the lever over Hiroshima in August 1945 which resulted, 43 seconds later, in the deaths of 60,000 or more people. This introduces us to the moral dilemma involved in the decision to drop this bomb and the next one on Nagasaki. How many people are likely to have died if the bombs had not been dropped and Japan had invaded and Flanagan asks:

“Do possibly more corpses tomorrow justify possibly fewer corpses today?”

Any reader hoping for simple answers to such moral conundrums will be disappointed. He tells us that ‘Chekhov believed that the role of literature was not to provide answers but only to ask the necessary questions’, and we are then introduced to the book’s title, which is derived from the following Chekhov question:

“Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3 a.m. in order to reach station B at 11 p.m.; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7 p.m. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?”

Much of the book is taken up with the writings and goings on of HG Wells and how what Wells did, and wrote, ultimately led to the atomic bomb and to the existence of Flanagan himself. As we know, a nuclear explosion requires a chain reaction but Flanagan brilliantly uses the concept of chain reaction for all that happens in life. The so-called butterfly effect.

Flanagan, tells us of an incident where Wells and Rebecca West kissed:

“That kiss would, in time, beget death which would in turn, beget me and the circumstances of my life that lead to the book you now hold.”

The reasoning is that the kiss was followed by Wells, who was aware of the discovery of radium, imagining and writing about ‘a new weapon of imaginable power which he called the atomic bomb.’

Some scientists, including those advising Hitler, were sceptical about whether such a bomb was possible, and if it was, whether its chain reaction could be controlled. However, one physicist by the name of Leo Szilard, who had read Wells works, did believe it to be possible and helped to develop the technology for such a destructive bomb.

Then, the argument develops, the explosions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war with Japan, and but for that destruction, Flanagan’s father would have been unlikely to have survived the war, which would have meant that Flanagan would not have been born, and the book not written. He summarises it as follows:

“Without Rebecca West’s kiss H. G. Wells would not have run off to Switzerland to write a book in which everything burns, and without H. G. Wells book Leo Szilard would never have conceived of a nuclear chain reaction and without conceiving of a nuclear chain reaction he would never have grown terrified, and without growing terrified Leo Szilard would never have persuaded Einstein to lobby Roosevelt and without lobbying Roosevelt there would have been no Manhattan Project etc etc etc.”

The chain reaction it seems, doesn’t only apply in the field of nuclear physics. It also applies to our lives.

The book reveals Flanagan’s deep love for his native Tasmania, and he connects the genocide of its First Nations Peoples with Wells famous book, The War of the Worlds. Apparently, it was that genocide which helped inspire that book.

The final chapter deals with an incident, when as a young man, Flanagan came within a whisker of dying when trapped in rapids on the Franklin River. Again, if he had not survived, this intriguing book when never have been written.

The book cover accurately says this:

“At once a love song to his island home and to his parents, this hypnotic melding of dream, history, place and memory is about how our lives so often arise out of the stories of others and the stories we invent about ourselves.”

This is a beautifully written, compelling, and thought-provoking work which I strongly recommend.

John Watts

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