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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Whatever Evil is, it wasn't in that Room

picture from Kikuji Kawada's The Map

Last night Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It's the story that connects to  his father's experiences on the Thai-Burma Railway - as Flanagan says "Between 100,000 and 200,000 died. More than died at Hiroshima. More corpses than there are words in my novel."

Flanagan worked for 12 years to tell this story. He told it as a love story because he says that while war stories dark about death, war also illuminates love which is the greatest expression of hope. It's what we live for.

And because it's what we live for, it's what we want to read about. Flanagan has every reason to be self-indulgent and wallow in his father's misery, but it seems like he's translating the story for readership. He's reaching out, he's editing, he's adapting, he's simplifying, he's making it a story that has been written for the reader. It's written on the reader's terms. I think an interesting question here is how often do photographers do this?; go out to the reader and sacrifice their self-indulgence to tell the story well? How often do they do this, how often don't they do this?

I haven't read the book, I only read an excerpt that appeared in the Guardian at the Weekend. All six of the books were highlighted, but for me, Flanagan's (along with Ali Smith's) were the ones that stood out. Here's an excerpt.

I went to Japan. There I searched and found several guards who had worked on the Death Railway. Five minutes before meeting with one guard I realised he was the man who had been the Ivan the Terrible of my father's camp, the man the Australians called the Lizard. Sentenced to death for war crimes after the war, the Lizard later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and then was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He is the only man I ever heard my father – a gentle, peaceful man – talk of with violent intent.
The meeting was in the offices of a taxi company in suburban Tokyo. Lee Hak Rae, as he is now, was a gracious old man. 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. On the third blow, the taxi office began to shake and toss violently, like a dinghy in a wild sea.
In one of those coincidences in which reality delights but fiction, for fear of being unrealistic, never permits, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo. For half a minute I saw the Lizard frightened. I saw too that wherever evil is, it wasn't in that shuddering room with that old man and me.

I haven't read the book yet, I'm just going on the 500 words or so he wrote for the Guardian - but if he can make the story interesting, and magical, in 500 words, then I'll bet the book is interesting too. From the quote above it seems to me that he's humanising the inhuman, and that's what makes the story interesting. It gives it another dimension that goes beyond the usual heads or tails, good and evil dialogue. It's why Studio Ghibli is better than Disney, why Doris Lessing is more profound than Dan Brown.
And it's the same with good photography, or interesting photography. It gives three dimensions, it tells parts of the story that haven't been told before, it questions our assumptions, and it reaches out to the viewer on the viewer's terms. Certainly there's a place for self-referential streams of consciousness but it should only be a niche; a niche within a niche. 
I wrote last week about Silent Histories, Kazuma Obara's  excellent book on victim's of the American bombing in the Second World War. In addition to this, the book also questions Japanese society's attitude to the war and its victims. But I wondered at whether there are Japanese photobooks that focus exclusively on the role of the Japanese military in the Second World War, that look at people like Lee Hak Rae and what they did in the war and how they feel now. There are plenty of photobooks made at the time that wondered at the glory of the Japanese Imperial Army, but ones that wonder at the brutality, that question Japan's role in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s? I couldn't think of any and I ran it by a few people who know about Japanese photobooks and nobody could come up with anything. 
But that doesn't mean they don't exist or they won't exist. A few years ago when I taught English, I had a couple of Japanese students. The first was called Michiko. She was five foot two, with pigeon toes, chubby thighs and she wore Miffy socks. She was 30 but she looked 13. Her classmates were Swiss lawyers, Brazilian economists and Italian philosophers. At the start of the course, she was patronised to an extent I have never witnessed before. It was quite disgusting and I can honestly say I have wiped out the memory of everybody else in that class from my mind. But Michiko bore it all with good grace and at the end of her first week I found out why. Everybody gave a presentation on what they were studying. The Swiss talked about law, the  Brazilians about economics and it was all very good. I felt for Michiko who had chosen to go last. 
And so she came to the front and she started. "My name is Michiko and I am going to talk about the research I am doing for my PhD on the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in forced prostitution in Korea during the Second World War."
Oh my Giddy aunt. It was like something from a film where the tables are turned on the class bullies. After that, nobody ever patronised Michiko ever again. From that moment on, she was greeted with only politeness and respect by the other students. And a little fear. They were afraid of her and Michiko knew it. She knew it and she enjoyed it because she knew she was kinder, smarter and tougher than them. She didn't look it, but she was. 


Elvis Resartus said...

Wow! great post, esp Michiko.

Stan B. said...

Much of post war German government and society has specifically apologized and made reparations for their crimes against humanity- while Japan has refused to even acknowledge theirs. I wonder how much (or little) that has to do with the fact that we dropped the big one on them... twice.

Does inflicting upon a nation an experimental device of untold mass destruction, absolve and excuse it from dealing with its own war crimes (even though the firebombings of both Germany and Japan ultimately led to more deaths, respectively)?

colin pantall said...

Michiko was great, Elvis. Still remember that well.

I don't think so, Stan. It's not really to do with the US, it's to do with China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaya, Burma and what Japan did there. There is no absolution, there is only denial of the most venal, self-centred and ultimately racist kind. And it's still going on...

Stan B. said...

Agreed, then why the double standard? Why is one defeated country allowed to go its merry way in complete denial, and the other fully expected to atone for its sins?

colin pantall said...

From a European/Western point of view, because it's a long way away and so it doesn't matter - from a Japanese point of view, I'm not sure. There's plenty of people who think it does matter. But they're rich and they can get away with it.

In the same way that every country has its little shop of horrors that are excused, brushed away or denied because a) it wasn't us b) it was a few bad apples c) it was a long time ago d) because it wasn't as bad as what someone else did to us.

So it applies just as much to the UK as Japan in many ways.