Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Helle Kraav on April 20, 2021.
Tasmania, originally named Van Diemen’s Land, was used by the British from 1803 to 1853 as a penal colony. Richard Flanagan is descended from an Irish grandfather transported there in 1851 during the Great Famine. He believes his grandmother had aboriginal ancestors. His wife is the daughter of Slovenian immigrants. Richard is an ardent friend of the environment and also ambassador for the Indigenous Literary Foundation. All these factors influence and are featured in his writings.
In his youth he worked as a labourer, a river guide, and a doorman at a private club before getting his BA with 1st class honors from the University of Tasmania and a 1984 Rhodes scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford, from whence he graduated with a Master of Letters in History. The experience gained in the youthful jobs is used extensively in his novels Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, and The Unknown Terrorist. The Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a tribute to his father and all the POWs who survived the building of the Death Railway and Richard’s own search for understanding and the meaning of “love” and “forgiveness.”
He considers the four non-fiction books he wrote between 1985 and 1991 as an apprenticeship. His articles in international journals on environmental issues have resulted in beneficial action to the environment; however, his fictional novels are what have made him famous. From the first, Death of a River Guide through The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting, to The Narrow Road to the Deep North and First Person[K1] , they have spoken about Tasmania, its history and people, in a uniquely original voice and have established Richard as one of Australia’s best living writers. Quite an achievement for someone whose grandfather was illiterate and whose Death of a River Guide, when it came out in 1994, couldn’t find a reviewer because it supposedly did not represent Australian literature.
His books are not easy reading to while away an hour or two. He has a passionate and a powerful voice. There is much truth in his writing but also much love. I did not always understand him on first reading yet it was worth searching for his meaning. He has a lovely sense of humour when speaking in person, but to me it is sardonic in his books. The violence and profane language are not for many readers, yet I find he has become somewhat like an addiction. I’m now reading his seventh novel, First Person, the story of Australia’s most notorious con man, John Friedrich, whose autobiography Richard ghost wrote as Codename Iago. Friedrich died before Richard could finish it and he only had a sense of who Friedrich was. First Person is now the fictional version of that life story.
The first seven of Richard Flanagan’s novels are available from the CPL. His eighth novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, came out in October 2020 and is on order.