Sunday, November 02, 2014

In my father’s footsteps on the death railway

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Although many memoirs and histories have been written of the POW of Japan experience, few have been consider "literature." The books have not transcended from being a simple record of events to the art of telling a universal cultural tale. This has been in part because few of the stories told have been written with the skill or grace of an Anne Frank or an Elie Wiesel. Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken seems to have begun to fill this void. Hopefully, the related movie to be released this Christmas will provide more art to embed it into the national imagination.

Last month, Richard Flanagan the son of an Australian POW who slaved on the Thai-Burma Death railway was awarded prestigious Man Booker Prize for English Fiction for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is a fictionalized account of the building of the Thai-Burma Death railway and living as its survivor.

Unlike Unbroken, it is not about virtue. The book’s hero, a doctor, and one assumes Flanagan too, is not romantic about war. He doesn’t believe that suffering is a kind of grace that lends virtue to the sufferers. Indeed, Evans “hated virtue, hated virtue being admired, hated people who pretended he had virtue or pretended to virtue themselves.” Virtue, he believed, was just “vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” This book is the next step in embedding the POW story into our national culture.

After slaving on the Burma-Thai Death Railroad, Flanagan's father was shipped to Japan to slave in a coal near Hiroshima on the In-land Sea, Hiroshima #9-B, the Ohama Mine in Onoda. The third book of Australian Ray Parkin's Wartime Trilogy novel of his experience as POW of Japan, The Sword and the Blossom, is an account of moving from the Death Railroad to this mine.

For an excellent analysis of the Flanagan novel, see Ian Buruma in the November 20th New York Review of Books.
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Turning his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW into a Booker prize-winning novel became a pilgrimage for Richard Flanagan. Below he writes for the London Times how it took him from the jungles of Thailand and their ghosts to Tokyo, where he met the Lizard, a notorious camp guard. [Richard Flanagan, The Sunday Times (London) Published: 19 October 2014]

Allied prisoners toiling on the railway. (Topham Picturepoint/Press Association)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most famous books of all Japanese literature. Written in 1689 by Matsuo Basho, the greatest of all haiku poets, it takes the form of a haibun, a nature journal that records a journey in prose and haiku.

My father was a Japanese prisoner of war, one of those put to work on what in Australia is known as the Death Railway. A pharaonic project, the railway was pushed more than 250 miles through wild jungle in what was then Siam — and is today Thailand — and Burma in less than a year in 1943.

It was built by more than a quarter of a million slave labourers working mostly naked, with almost no machinery and only the most basic of hand tools. Between 100,000 and 200,000 died. More corpses than Hiroshima. More corpses than there are words in my novel.

My father was a survivor of that, of cholera, of the hell ships that took POWs to Japan, of being a slave labourer in a coalmine under the Inland Sea, south of Hiroshima, at the war’s end. If Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the high points of Japanese culture, my father and his mates’ experience is one of its lowest.

For 12 years I tried to write a novel about that experience and all it suggested to me. And for 12 years other novels came and went as I continued to be unable to write this one. I wrote five wildly different novels attempting somehow to tell this story, all of them failures, all files which I deleted and all manuscripts which I burnt. I understood, although it made no sense, that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing. And yet I could not write it.

Then I realised that my father, by now in his nineties, was growing frail and weak and although there was no logical reason to think such a thing, I felt I had to somehow finish this novel before he died.

Flanagan’s father, Archie, was also a slave labourer in a Japanese coal mine

For a year I visited and called with endless questions about daily life in the camp. What came first, roll call or breakfast? How does a rotting shin bone revealed by a blossoming tropical ulcer smell? What was it like having cholera?

My memories of my father when I was a child are of a sick man, debilitated by his war experience. We grew up with a man of often strange anxieties and deep compassion, whose stories of his POW experiences, while often funny, were compounded of love and pity. But I did not want the book to be about him. As much as his experience and perspective would influence it, I did not want some fictionalised version of his life. As much as it was about my father and me, it had to escape us both.

I went to Thailand and walked up and found the site of my father’s camp, walked that bitter track through the jungle from that camp to what little remained of the railway and the dead, overgrown embankments and cuttings. And I realised that the novel had to be a love story. Why?

Because great love stories seek to demonstrate the great truth about love: that we discover eternity in a moment that dies immediately after. War stories are the great story of death. War illuminates love; while love — if it does not redeem war — is the highest expression of hope, without which any story rings untrue to life.

Friedrich Nietzsche regarded hope as the cruellest of human torments because it prolongs suffering. But it is also the nub of who we are. Not for nothing were the most forsaken in the Nazi death camps the muselmänner, those without hope. Similarly art — when it seeks to speak of darkness but does not allow for hope — will finally fail. Without hope such art is untrue to what we know as a fundamental truth of ourselves.

And I had long been taken by a story my parents were fond of.

A Latvian man they knew, a postwar refugee, caught up in the vast movements of lives that the Second World War had involved, had returned to his home village after the war, to find it razed and his wife, he was told, dead. He searched the wastelands of postwar Europe for her for two years and finally had to accept the truth: that she had perished. He emigrated to Australia, met another woman, married and had children.


In 1957 he visited Sydney. Walking down a crowded street he saw walking towards him his Latvian wife, alive, with a child on either hand. At that moment he had to decide whether he would acknowledge her or walk on.

This beautiful story had always moved me. I started my novel yet again, with this image at its heart. Now it was a love story and its leading character a figure utterly unlike my father — a doctor who is the POW commander in one camp and who, after the war, is celebrated as a war hero but feels himself to be anything but that.

My father worried that people would forget what had happened and he trusted me that I might write something that encouraged people to remember. If my father was helpful with my endless questioning of minute detail, he never asked me what the story was. He allowed me the freedom to write as I have to write.

Yet I felt, rather shamefully, that perhaps I would not be able to finish the novel until he died, as though there was something in all this that held me back.

Towards the end of 2012, with the novel taking its final form, I resolved to visit Japan.

There I searched and found several guards who had worked on the Death Railway. I met a man who had been a Japanese army medical orderly and had been at my father’s camp. It looked, he said, like a Buddhist hell. He recalled skeletons crawling around in the mud. He told me the Australians were very bad with their hygiene. The Japanese took hot baths. The Australians did not. I paid for his tea and taxi home.

Five minutes before meeting another guard who had been on the Death Railway, I realised that he was the one who had been the Ivan the Terrible of my father’s camp, the man the Australians called “the Lizard”. The meeting was to be in the offices of a taxi company owned by his son in outer suburban Tokyo.

The Lizard had been sentenced to death for war crimes after the war. Later he had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and then was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He is the only man I have ever heard my father — a gentle, peaceful man — speak of with violent intent.

Lee Hak-rae,  as he is now, was a dignified, gracious and generous old man [Korean Japanese]. Near the end of our meeting I asked him to slap me. Violent face-slapping — known as binta — was the immediate form of punishment in the camps, doled out frequently and viciously.

It was a curious request and the old man took some persuasion. Finally we stood up, facing each other. I asked him to slap me as hard as he could. Of his slaps, I recall only how clean and dry the skin of his aged hand was as it struck me.

On the third blow the taxi office began to shake and toss violently, like a dinghy in a wild sea. For a moment I thought I was going mad. But in one of those coincidences in which reality delights, but fiction — for fear of being unrealistic — is never permitted, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo. For half a minute, as the room swayed and a wall of tossing taxi keys made a shimmering tingle, I saw the Lizard frightened. I saw too that wherever evil is, it was not in that room with that old man and me.

I went south to where my father was a slave labourer and the mayor of Sanyo Onoda city met me in front of television cameras to apologise.  I met villagers who remembered Australians arriving in that terrible winter of late 1944, skeletons in shorts. I met more guards. I was photographed by local media with one guard at the site of the camp where my father thought he would die in the spring of 1945. Below us, where once stood the minehead the POWs would run a gauntlet of sadistic guards to enter, there now stood a love hotel.

It was a bitterly cold day. We put our arms around one another for a photograph. A tiny, frail man, Mr Sato then curled into me in the manner children do when seeking forgiveness. Or perhaps he was just cold. When the photograph was taken, I took my arm away. Mr Sato stayed where he was, curling inwards.

That night I ended up drinking in a Japanese hostess bar with Kenji Yasushige,  the Sanyo Onada city council’s international relations and equal opportunities officer. As Kenji crooned a karaoke ballad to the largely empty bar, one of the hostesses looked at me and, smiling, asked why I was visiting the city.

“My father was a slave labourer here during the war,” I said.

“Really?” she replied, continuing to look at me with her dreamy, anime eyes. “What is slave labourer?”

There is strangeness in the world beyond any words.

My father, who was not a man for such things, rang within a few hours of my returning home. He wanted to know what had happened. He was 98, frail, but his mind was still good, his recall phenomenal. I told him how the Japanese people had been unfailingly kind and generous and how, amazingly, I had met some guards who had been at his camps, including the Lizard. He asked me what they said.

I thought of the earthquake. Of Mr Sato curling inwards. Of the near-empty hostess bar.

I said they talked in detail about all of their lives, except the camps where details seemed to elude them, but that I felt nevertheless that they carried shame, and how each one had expressed their sorrow and apologies for what had happened, and asked me to pass them on to my father.

My father stopped talking. After some time he said he had to go, and hung up.

Later that day my father lost all memory of his time in the POW camps. And yet his pre-war memory remained strong. He knew in an abstract way — as you know you have been in the womb — that he had been in the camps, but no memory remained. It was as though he were finally free.

For the next four months I lived mostly by myself on an island off the coast of Tasmania and I rewrote the novel. I felt I had written all my books in order to write this one book, to somehow communicate the incommunicable.

I emailed the final draft of my novel to my publisher on the Monday before Anzac Day. My father was ill, and I was with him early that morning. He asked how the book was going. I told him it was finally done.

He died that night.

In truth the novel was not quite done. There was some intensive rewriting, as is my way when publication approaches. And I see now what I could not see then, that hanging over it all, shaping everything, were his looming death and the question of love. But you only understand such things — and then only imperfectly — long after you have written the last word.

One thing did not change — the dedication: “To prisoner san byaku san ju go.” It was my father’s Japanese prison number, 335.

He had taught it to me as I was growing up as his son — a child of the narrow road to the deep north.


  1. Have a good day.

    Please find more details about our SIAM BURMA DEATH RAILWAY – Documentary Film.

    Trailer : (English Version, 03 mins 29 Sec)
    IMDB :
    Website :
    FaceBook :

    This is a documentary film about the Asian Labourers (Indian Tamils, Burmese & Javanese) who worked like slaves at Siam (Thailand) – Burma death railway line during WWII.

    Generally the title “Siam-Burma Death Railway” emphasizes the tearful faces of POW's and their sufferings to the outside world. The Records of WWII are projecting the cruelty of this 415 KM lengthy railway construction by Japanese army and role of POW's in archives and Libraries. The Books published on this issue after the war by POW's and their families had announced the wounded experiences of allied forces. The existing war records of WWII are illuminating the stories of POW's alone.

    But the truth is, this railway project was filled with the life and blood drops of thousands of innocent Asian labourer too. Approximately 2,50,000 innocent Asian labourers (from Malaya,Burma and Java) worked in the same railway construction and devoted their life. There is no doubt that the stories of Asian Labourers are unimaginable and peak irony in the war pages. But it was not recognized and registered in the History so far. The names of the Asian Labourers who were killed and affected during the construction are unknown to our current world.

    This painful truth had triggered us to make this documentary film. Nearly 10 years have spent to trace & collect the information’s about Asian labourers from commonwealth and other countries. The war chronicles of POW's, Records of WWII & Historians helped highly to get the outline of Asian labourers.

    The main source of this documentary’s strength is survivors. Yes. The survivors from Asian labour side played a major role in this film. Nearly 10 survivors shared their unforgettable experiences in this film without any exaggeration. Their memories didn't mislay the tormenting experiences after 72 years. Much unpopular information’s about the Labourers are revealed in this documentary through these survivors.

    Surprisingly the sorrows of the railway construction were documented in the form of folklore songs by Asian labourers (Malaysia) during the war time. Those songs also navigated us to get more news about this pathetic incident.

    The highlighting part of this film is the participation of great Historical Researchers Dr.David Boggett, Emeritus Professor, Kyoto University, Japan, Mr. Rod Beattie, Director, Thai-Burma Railway Museum, Thailand & Prof.M.Annamalai, India. The above mentioned scholars had shared and revealed concrete information in this project and some of that are very new to South East Asian Indian community.

    This documentary film was released in Paris and London in July 2014. It got released in Pondicherry (india) and Malaysia recently. We are planning to screen this documentary film to the common wealth & other important countries. Our journey will continue till the task get end.

    Our purpose of this documentary screening is to create awareness to outside world.

    On 14th October 2014 Richard Flanagan was announced winner Of the Man Booker Prize 2014 for his "The Narrow Road to the Deep North".

    The Production Team
    Nadodigal creations.

  2. My father, william sheldon keast, was a survivor of the death railway. The stories i remember him telling me are so unbelievable! He must have been in the worst pow camp, because i havent ever read anything on pows camps that comes close to the conditions my dad had to live in. Magots in there rice, no bedding. A big hole in the ground is where he slept, on the dirt. They would put a ladder down in the morning to climb up, but at night had to jump down into the hole. Unbelievable what my father endured, he was a great dad, i love and miss him. He died in 1994 of lung cancer, in las vegas. May we always remember the men that suffered so much building the death railway during ww2, they truely are our heros!

    Rhonda keast


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