Richard Flanagan, First person (#BookReview)

Richard Flanagan, First PersonRichard Flanagan’s latest novel First person, which I did with my reading group, is a challenge to read. By this I don’t mean it’s “hard” to read but that it requires careful attention to pin down. On the surface, its subject is straightforward. It’s the story of struggling as-yet-unpublished writer, Kif Kehlmann, who accepts the job of ghost-writing a memoir for a con-man, Siegried Heidl. It’s autobiographically-based in that Richard Flanagan himself did just this for the fraudster or imposter John Friedrich, who headed the National Safety Council of Australia. However, the novel takes off in directions far removed from Flanagan’s life. At least, so I believe, though as Kif very quickly learns, how do we know what to believe! Who to trust!?

Anyhow, why write this now, 25 or more years after the events? Well, the title might give you a hint, as well as the subject matter … but, it is a tricksy book, starting from its very nature as a pseudo-memoir about a ghost-written memoir. If you know Flanagan, you’ll know he’s setting himself – and us – up for quite a ride. It’s a complicated ride, and perhaps got a little sidetracked at times, but is nonetheless fascinating …

“ceaselessly self-making”

The story describes, in Kif’s first person (ha!) voice, his experience of ghostwriting Heidl’s memoir and its aftermath. The ghostwriting task doesn’t go well, with Heidl evading Kif’s attempts to obtain the information he needs. Flanagan describes this with the wonderfully evocative language that we love reading him for. “I may as well have used a pair of scissors to pick up spilt mercury”, he writes of his early attempts to get some facts. He tries a different method: ask some direct questions, write up his understanding of the answers, and then check his version with Heidl:

The more outlandish, the less related my story was to the few, vague facts he had outlined, the more ludicrous I was, the more pleased Heidl seemed, and the more he would claim that it accorded exactly with his own memory.

After which, apparently, Heidl would contact 60 Minutes or some other program or newspaper, to line up “paid interviews about himself on the basis of such inventions.”

You can perhaps see where this is going in terms of my Why now question. It’s that Heidl (Friedrich) was continuously reinventing himself. Sound familiar? Heidl lived “in a constant state of transformation”. The end result, as Kif sees it, is that Heidl, “the great story maker … was everywhere present in his creations but nowhere visible”. He was not, as Kif tells it, “so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making”. This narcissism, this solipsistic way of being in the world, this mania for self-invention, makes this book relevant now.

“Trust is the oil that greases the machine of the world”

The other main issue relating to the Why Now question concerns trust. Heidl was a con-man, which means of course that he played on people’s trust. And my, he did it with bells on. He managed to defraud banks of $700 million by, for example, convincing them that he had a fleet of shipping containers (CIRILs) full of the technology and equipment required for responding to disasters. Heidl says, continuing the heading quote above:

Even people we hate we trust. That’s how it is. And, amazingly, mostly it works. The bankers trusted that the CIRILs were real, that ASO was real, until finally it was real. Like you trust the mechanic did service the car or that the bank is honest; like you trust that the people who run the world know what they’re doing …

Every day now, every single day it seems, we are confronted with organisations and individuals failing to live up to our trust – the churches, the banks, the police, the politicians. This is why, it’s patently obvious, Flanagan wrote this story now.

The novel, then, is about what happens when we buy into this world of make-believe. And it’s not pretty. In the book it is most vividly exposed, at the personal level anyhow, through what happens to Kif during and after his writing of the book. The more time he spends with Heidl, the more he finds himself, against his will, being drawn into Heidl’s world and starting to “think like Heidl”, until finally “all that divided him from me evaporated.” You’ll have to read the book yourself, if you haven’t already, to see how this plays out.

“The novel is dead”

The book is also an apologia for fiction. Like Flanagan, Kif was a struggling novelist when he accepted the ghost-writing job. It’s something that Heidl regularly throws back in his face, whenever Kif questions his truths. Why is a fiction writer, Heidl asks him, concerned about truth and facts when what he does in fact is lie? Hmm … I’d tell him there’s lying and there’s story, and that the former obfuscates while the latter illuminates, but he probably wouldn’t believe me!

Near the end, an entertaining (there’s much humour in the book in fact) but significant set piece occurs when, visiting New York decades later, Kif meets a young writer. She’s in her late twenties and has just published the third volume of her autobiography. The novel, she says, “as a mode of narrative“, is dead:

It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things … Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag […] Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have.

Kif says he doesn’t agree … and nor does Flanagan, which he demonstrates most obviously through the very act of writing this story as a novel not a memoir. Fiction, he shows, facilitates the exploration of alternatives, the asking of questions.

Overall, I loved Flanagan’s exploration of our current mania for self and of the issues surrounding truth and our desire (need, even) to trust. I also enjoyed Flanagan’s language. But when I got to the end, I couldn’t make it fully cohere. This is partly to do with the breadth of targets and topics, of which I’ve only touched the surface here. It felt at times that Flanagan had a few points to make – scores to settle even – regarding, for example, publishing and writing in Australia. These confused the main thrust a little – though maybe I have conflated Kif with his author! Finally, the second part of the novel, post Heidl’s death, could have been tighter. Kif’s life diverges significantly from that of his model, Flanagan, and is explored at some length. It’s perfectly logically developed, but the “message” started to feel a little laboured.

Nonetheless, First person is well worth reading – for its (novelistic) insight into that time in Flanagan’s life not to mention into a fascinating episode in Australia’s history; for its intelligent exploration of some critical issues that don’t seem to be going away; and for Flanagan’s marvellous prose. I should probably read it again.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Richard Flanagan
First person
North Sydney: Knopf, 2017
ISBN: 9780143787242

Richard Flanagan, the Booker Prize, and Books

Lisa at ANZLitlovers has posted on Richard Flanagan’s (exciting-to-us) Booker Prize win for The narrow road to the deep north, and has provided links to reviews by several bloggers. So, I thought I’d do something different. In my review and follow-up post, I discussed the role of poetry in the novel. Reviewer (and novelist) Romy Ash suggests that there are two love stories in the book, the second one being a “love letter to literature”.

And certainly, there are many references to literature and books, besides the specific references to poetry that I’ve previously discussed. Early in the novel, on what we later realise was Dorrigo’s last sentient night, he’s in bed with his lover:

On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age. A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound. He read late of an afternoon. He almost never looked at what the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object — as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams.

I was intrigued by the distinction he makes between a “good” book and a “great” one. There are many reasons why I want to reread books. Most of them, I’d say, have to do with the “joy” those books bring me. I don’t mean “joy” in terms of “happiness” but in terms of “inspiration”. This inspiration can take many forms – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, cultural, linguistic. And it usually springs from the two things I mostly read for – insights into human behaviour and great prose. Jane Austen is a good example of this. I’m not sure that I think about it in terms of my soul. Have you thought about why you reread?

Anyhow, there’s one other quote I wanted to share regarding books. This one occurs before the war, in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy, the love of his life:

It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books — an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.

And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work — an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.

What I particularly like about this quote is the idea that books can make you feel you are not alone. I love it when I read a book and think “I know that feeling” or “That’s me”. Of course, I also love it when I gain insight into how others think or feel too, but it can be reassuring to feel that someone else understands your particular neuroses or dark thoughts or sense of the ridiculous or whatever it is that sometimes makes you feel alone. Books can be such cheap therapy can’t they? I also like the second part of this quote, and its suggestion that there is only one book, one story that encompasses all stories. If only we could all see the world that way …

Delicious descriptions: Richard Flanagan on Poetry

In my review of Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north I talked a little about the importance of poetry to some of the main characters. I can’t resist sharing just a little more on this topic.

This is Dorrigo thinking, at the end of his life, though he doesn’t know just how near it is at the time:

He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving that the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country.

Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem. If the coming of television and with it the attendant idea of celebrity – who were otherwise people, Dorrigo felt, you would not wish to know – ended that age, it also occasionally fed on it, finding in the clarity of those who ordered their lives in accordance with the elegant mystery of poetry a suitable subject for imagery largely devoid of thought.

I was thrilled when I read that Dorrigo, who was born around 1913, had “grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry”. It reminded me of my recent observation that poetry seems to have played a more significant role in people’s lives back in the 1920s than now. So, for Dorrigo, poetry is what he turns to for sustenance, for meaning or explanation, in his life. He says at one point that he can sleep without a woman, but he can’t sleep without a book. I love the idea of a world where poetry is widely known, loved and referred to.

Anyhow, here is Nakamura, dying of cancer, thinking about “goodness”:

He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word — perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem — a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil.

Yet somehow — in a way he tried not to dwell upon — this poem has become horror, monsters and corpses. And he knew he had discovered in himself an almost inexhaustible capacity to stifle pity, to be playful with cruelty in a way that he found frankly pleasurable, for no single human life could be worth anything next to this cosmic goodness. For a moment, as he was being eaten by Tomokawa’s* oppressive armchair, he wondered: what if this had all been a mask for the most terrible evil.

The idea was too horrific to hold on to. In an increasingly rare moment of lucidity, Nakamura realised what was imminent was a battle not between life and death in his body, but between his dream of himself as a good man and this nightmare of ice monsters and crawling corpses. And with the same iron will that has served him so well in the Siamese jungle, in the ruins of the Shinjuku Rashomon and at the Blood Bank of Japan, he resolved that he must henceforth conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man.

Nakamura, as I said in my review, saw poetry as portraying “Japanese spirit” and it helped him justify his actions as commander of the camp. After the war, he gradually started to question his actions, but here at the very end of his life he wants, needs in fact, to see himself as a good man. And by force of will he does so, enabling him to choose as his death poem one which concludes with “clear is my heart”.

I love the idea of choosing your own death poem – and think I’ll start thinking about mine. What about you?

* He’s visiting Tomokawa, who had been one of his corporals on the Railway.

Richard Flanagan: The narrow road to the deep north (Review)

Courtesy: Random House Australia

Courtesy: Random House Australia

I love generosity of spirit, the ability to rise above terrible things to see the humanity that lies beneath. Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize shortlisted The narrow road to the deep north is, without being sentimental or glossing over the horror, a generous book – and this is why I expect it will be one of those books I’ll remember long into the future.

I know I’m late reading it – but this is because I’ve been saving it until my reading group did it, which was earlier this week. Consequently, I spent the last few days of September engrossed in the life of Dorrigo Evans, war-hero, lover of poetry (and of too many women), and, most significantly, POW from the Thai-Burma Railway. It’s one hell of a tale … and not exactly what I expected.

On the surface, Dorrigo had a successful life. He survived the POW camp for one thing, was highly regarded in his career, became a war-hero celebrity due to a documentary (loved this!), and had a long-lasting marriage with three children. But, this is not the full story. Chapter 2 of Book 1, commences:

A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or made it up. Made up, mixed up and broken down. Relentlessly broken down.

This sounds like it could be PTSD, but it’s not. PTSD is important, of course, but Flanagan is interested in broader issues. In many ways the book feels like a big 19th century novel – it has lots of characters, spans a long time-frame, doesn’t shy from coincidences, and explores big themes – but in style, it’s very contemporary, with frequent shifts in time and place, and multiple third-person subjective points of view. It requires concentration to get all the connections, and would benefit from a second reading. Just the sort of book I enjoy getting my teeth into.

I said in my opening paragraph that the book wasn’t exactly what I expected. That’s because I was expecting more war, and perhaps more anger, than I found. There is war, of course, much of it gruesome, as fits the “truth” of that situation, but the main thread is a love story, accompanied by meditations on ideas like truth, goodness and manhood. I can’t possibly discuss all these or we’ll be here forever, so I’m just going to focus on a couple.

“to somehow be more truthful as a human being” (Nakamura)

One of the novel’s strengths is the balance Flanagan strikes between brutality and humanity. He does this partly by paralleling the life of Dorrigo, the commanding officer of the POWs, with Nakamura, the commanding Japanese officer. Nakamura is the enemy but isn’t vilified as you’d expect. Flanagan shows Nakamura to be brutal towards prisoners but we also get inside his head. We learn that he is not comfortable in his own skin – he is, in fact, addicted to shabu (speed) – and that he needs his superiors’ arguments to convince himself of the right of what he is doing. That he is able to do so – that is, to buy completely into the notion of the “Japanese spirit”, into the Emperor’s goals of “The World Under One Roof” – is believable. What soldiers don’t buy into their nation’s “mythology” (whatever it is based on)?

Flanagan follows Nakamura post-war until his death, as he endeavours to rebuild his life – firstly under a false identity to escape being tried as a war-criminal, and later as himself, married and a father. He struggles to define himself – and is surprised to feel himself transformed into “a good man”. A decade or so after the war, his memory of his brutality fades:

time … allowed his memory instead to nurture stories of goodness and extenuating circumstance.

However, when he is dying, he finds it increasingly difficult to hold onto “his idea of his own goodness”. Comparing this goodness with that of his wife, it comes “close to collapsing altogether”. He searches for the “good things in his life — separate of the Emperor’s will, of orders and authority” but finds they are few when compared with his memory of “skeletal creatures crawling through the mud”. His death poem, concluding with “clear is my heart”, is tinged with irony, but reflects his desire “to conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man”.

By contrast, Dorrigo believes himself not to be a good man, to be “entirely bogus”. He marries a woman he doesn’t love, believing his true love to be dead:

For the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty. The guiltier he felt about his failure first as a husband and later as a father, the more desperately he tried to do only what was good in his public life. And what was good, what was duty, what was ever that most convenient escape that was conveniently inescapable, was what other people expected.

And yet, he’s a “war hero” and validly so. At one point on the Railway, when they are all starving, he refuses to eat some steak. Rather, he sends it back to the men, having “found himself the leader of a thousand men* who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not”. This is not false modesty – the men did bring out his best – and yet this modesty is not completely valid either because Dorrigo did have good in him. He was a man prepared to take action for others, at risk to himself. In his last comatose days, he feels that his life had “only ever been shame and loss”, but his final words are words of action, alluding, self-deprecatingly perhaps, to Don Quixote’s windmill but also reminding us of the last line of the poem that defined him, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” – “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

 “a poem is not a law” (Bonox Baker)

Two other notions run through the novel – and I’ve already alluded to them both – the love of literature, particularly poetry, and the workings of memory. One scene in particular brings these ideas together. It concerns the funeral pyre for some cholera victims, who include the artist Rabbit Hendricks. When cholera victims are burnt, their personal belongings must also be burnt, but Bonox Baker wants to save Rabbit’s sketchbook because:

it’s a record … So people in the future would, well, know. Remember, that’s what Rabbit wanted. That people will remember what happened here. To us.

Dorrigo quotes from Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, arguing that everything is forgotten in the end, that it’s better to just live. Bonox disagrees, telling Dorrigo that

A poem is not a law. It’s not fate Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.

For Dorrigo, for Nakamura and for his commanding officer, Colonel Kota, poetry is essential in some way to their lives. Dorrigo, who lived at a time “when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry” eventually finds himself “living in the shadow of a single poem”, while for Nakamura poetry emulates “the Japanese spirit” by which he tries to justify or explain his actions.

Bonox, though, is interested in something else. He continues to argue with Dorrigo about the sketchbook:

Memory is the true justice, sir.
Or, the creator of new horrors. Memory’s only like justice, Bonox, because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.

And so we come to one of the paradoxes that Flanagan exposes in the book – individual memory versus the memory industry. Dorrigo is outed as a war hero through a documentary, which makes him uncomfortable, and yet “to deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died”. The memory industry, however, too often ignores the “truth” of the experience in preference for the facts, as bugle-player Jimmy Bigelow discovers:

His sons corrected his memories more and more. What the hell did they know? Apparently a lot more than him. Historians, journalists, documentary makers, even his own bloody family pointing out errors, inconsistencies, lapses and straight out contradictions in his varying accounts. Who was he meant to be? The Encyclopaedia bloody Britannica? … His words and memories were nothing. Everything was in him. Could they not see that? Could they not just let him be?

Paradoxically, Flanagan is questioning the memory industry while at the same time contributing to it. And it is a powerful contribution. Just goes to show the power of literature!

This is a big messy novel, about the two messiest things humanity confronts – love and war. I love its messiness, its lack of answers, but it sure made it hard to write about. Fortunately, Lisa at ANZLitLovers and John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante have also given it a go.

Richard Flanagan
The narrow road to the deep north
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781741666700

* Aussie readers will recognise Flanagan’s reference here to Weary Dunlop.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang

This year is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary. For those of you who don’t know, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Indigenous Australian contemporary dance company that was established – obviously – in 1989. Its artistic director since 1991 has been Stephen Page. His brother, David Page, does the music. These are two very talented brothers who have had their hands in many significant indigenous arts endeavours besides Bangarra, but today it’s Bangarra I want to talk about! Bangarra is apparently a Wiradjuri word for “to make fire”.

Mr Gums and I have been to many Bangarra shows over the years. They are exciting. We love the way they incorporate indigenous themes and movements into the contemporary dance world. Last year’s show was Blak, which comprised three parts – a men’s story, a women’s story, and then both genders together. It was clever and entertaining. In 2012, we saw Terrain, which was inspired by the changing landscape of Lake Eyre in central Australia.

Two performances we’ve seen, though, have been inspired by historical figures – and have also connected, coincidentally, with Australian literature. In 2008 it was Mathinna, the indigenous Tasmanian girl who was adopted by Governor and Lady Franklin. Richard Flanagan told her story in his novel Wanting, which I read before blogging.  The other is their current show Patyegarang about the young indigenous woman who befriended and trusted first fleet astronomer-timekeeper, Lieutenant Dawes. She trusted him so much that she shared her culture with him, including her people’s language, which Dawes recorded in his diaries. Their story is told in Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Stephen Page explains in the program why he chose this story for their 25th anniversary show:

I wanted to take the opportunity to pay homage to the land on which we have gathered and created dance theatre works since 1989 – the Eora nation; the place we call Sydney.


I believe Patyegarang was a young woman of fierce and endearing audacity, and a ‘chosen one’, to speak, within her clan and community. Her tremendous display of trust in Dawes resulted in a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people almost 200 years later …

What he means here is that Dawes’ diaries, which were “rediscovered” by a researcher in the 1970s, have helped current people recover language and culture that had been lost.

Dramaturg Alana Valentine talks of how she translated Page’s vision into a story. She also quotes Richard Green, an elder and cultural adviser for the project, who said that “Dawes was different, he listened”. Valentine continues:

It is an observation that carries invaluable wisdom for how contemporary Australia might continue to honour the contribution Dawes himself made to reconciliation and respect.

There it is again – the message we keep hearing: Listen!

Musician David Page talks of working closely with his brother, nutting out just who Patyegarang was. He said the biggest question for him was “How close was their relationship?”

So, the show. It runs for 70 minutes without interval. My, how hard those dancers worked. As you would expect, it took their relationship from their meeting through getting to learn to trust each other and share their knowledge to when Dawes departs. The scene opens on the beach with the warm glow of dawn. It’s idyllic. The people go about their business, safe, as they usually do. Then a strange man appears and the story progresses. There’s hunting and gathering, smoking ceremonies, the gradual acceptance of Dawes (danced by the non-indigenous Thomas Greenfield) led by Patyegarang (Jasmin Shepherd) while others are less sure – and of course there’s fighting with the red coats. It’s a work that requires concentration and imagination from the audience – and I’m not sure we understood all the references. I suspect this is because while there seemed to be a clear narrative, the program is framed a little more abstractly, focussing on feelings, spirit, values and politics rather than narrative. It’s a work that would benefit from multiple viewings.

The dancing draws closely from traditional moves – at least from those I, as a non-indigenous person, recognise – but is still contemporary. Much of it is low to the ground, earthy, suggesting connection to country. All this is accompanied by lighting that tracks the day and mood; a simple backdrop of cliffs, which at times gave the impression of the ancestors looking on, and a single large rock representing a place of safety, of meeting; and gorgeous costuming that blends with the earth while suggesting lightness and spirit too. There’s one dance by the women – “Maugri (Generic Fish)” – in which tubular costumes enable them to slip from human to sea-creature and back again in fluid, organic moves. The music is dramatic, evocative – including clapping sticks at times, strains of “Botany Bay” at others, and overlays of the language Patyegarang shared and Dawes documented.

Works like this are inspiring on multiple levels, emotionally, intellectually and politically … it would be wonderful if more Australians could (or would) see it.