‘Literature must only aim for not being boring, not to change the world’

Jaipur, Jan 22 (IANS) Literature’s sole responsibility is to be exciting, not to change the world although novels do offer a unique way for the human race to view themselves, says Australian author and Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan.

“Literature has no responsibility other than not being boring. Its role isn’t to change the world, it is an aspect of life,” said Flanagan at a session titled “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (the title of his 2014 Booker-winning work) at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017’s penultimate day on Sunday.

“And though books are never going to be the mass phenomenon in the way Bollywood is, I feel that if writers can do their job with integrity, they will be heard across the oceans and they will defy time,” he said.

Novels, he said, are important for enabling “us to think about us in a way we can’t though poems, politics or philosophy”.

After reading a passage from the book, which tells the story of an Australian doctor burdened with memories of rather improper love affair, his subsequent horrific experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on the “Death Railway” in Thailand during World War II, and troubled post-war life, Flanagan quipped: “If a writer knew what the book was about, they wouldn’t write so many pages, they would just tweet it.”

The Australian author, who is ranked among the world’s greatest novelists for his stunning array of half-a-dozen books, also maintained that research is overrated.

However, he admitted that his opinion however didn’t stop him travelling to Japan to meet a guard from the prisoner of war camp where his father was held during the war – an experience that served as the impetus for this book – and making a strange, self-punishing request.

Noting that the Japanese soldiers had then practised corporal punishment, especially slapping people till they collapsed, while this guard, who had answered all the other questions, professed to have no memory of this, he said he persuaded this man “to slap me three times”.

“His body stretched in a particular way, he cupped his hand, and even though he had forgotten the violence, his body remembered it,” said Flanagan, adding that on receiving the third blow, “the whole room seemed to twist up and down” and he “felt like a 7.3 Richter-scale earthquake had hit Tokyo”.

Flanagan said the book mirrors his views about redemptive human qualities such as hope and love and also both sides of the personality, citing the example of his Japanese interlocutor, who said he had forgotten the violence but give a earthshaking example of it.

“Memory is what we choose to remember and it is not sentimental to believe in hope, it is a mechanism of love,: he said.

Asked why many writers continue to choose this exacting and not very lucrative career, he said that books are a celebration of being human.

“The great and extraordinary power of a book is that it reminds us that we are never alone and that is no small thing,” he said.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)