Books Richard Flana­gan: ex­clu­sive ex­tract from his new novel

Richard Flana­gan’s new novel, cen­tres on an Aus­tralian sur­geon who be­comes a hero for his lead­er­ship while a pris­oner-of-war of the Ja­panese. In the open­ing chap­ters we meet Dor­rigo Evans as a boy grow­ing up in Tas­ma­nia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

WHY at the be­gin­ning of things is there al­ways light? Dor­rigo Evans’ ear­li­est mem­o­ries were of sun flood­ing a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grand-mother. A wooden church hall. Blind­ing light and him tod­dling back and forth, in and out of its tran­scen­dent wel­come, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like en­ter­ing the sea and re­turn­ing to the beach. Over and over.

Bless you, his mother says as she holds him and lets him go. Bless you, boy.

That must have been 1915 or 1916. He would have been one or two. Shad­ows came later in the form of a fore­arm ris­ing up, its black out­line leap­ing in the greasy light of a kerosene lantern. Jackie Maguire was sit­ting in the Evanses’ small dark kitchen, crying. No one cried then, ex­cept ba­bies. Jackie Maguire was an old man, maybe forty, per­haps older, and he was try­ing to brush the tears away from his pock­marked face with the back of his hand. Or was it with his fin­gers?

Only his crying was in Dor­rigo Evans’ mem­ory fixed. It was a sound like some­thing break­ing. Its slow­ing rhythm re­minded him of a rab­bit’s hind legs thump­ing the ground as it is stran­gled by a snare, the only sound he had ever heard that was sim­i­lar. He was nine, had come in­side to have his mother look at a blood blis­ter on his thumb, and had lit­tle else to com­pare it to. He had seen a grown man cry only once be­fore, a scene of as­ton­ish­ment when his brother Tom re­turned from the Great War in France and got off the train. He had swung his kit­bag onto the hot dust of the sid­ing and abruptly burst into tears.

Watch­ing his brother, Dor­rigo Evans had won­dered what it was that would make a grown man cry. Later, crying be­came sim­ply af­fir­ma­tion of feel­ing, and feel­ing the only com­pass in life. Feel­ing be­came fash­ion­able and emo­tion be­came a theatre in which peo­ple were play­ers who no longer knew who they were off the stage. Dor­rigo Evans would live long enough to see all th­ese changes. And he would re­mem­ber a time when peo­ple were ashamed of crying. When they feared the weak­ness it bespoke. The trou­ble to which it led. He would live to see peo­ple praised for things that were not wor­thy of praise, sim­ply be­cause truth was seen to be bad for their feel­ings.

That night Tom came home they burnt the Kaiser on a bon­fire. Tom said noth­ing of the war, of the Ger­mans, of the gas and the tanks and the trenches they had heard about. He said noth­ing at all. One man’s feel­ing is not al­ways equal to all life is. Some­times it’s not equal to any­thing much at all. He just stared into the flames. A HAPPY man has no past, while an un­happy man has noth­ing else. In his old age Dor­rigo Evans never knew if he had read this or had him­self made it up. Made up, mixed up, and bro­ken down. Re­lent­lessly bro­ken down. Rock to gravel to dust to mud to rock and so the world goes, as his mother used to say when he de­manded rea­sons or ex­pla­na­tion as to how the world got to be this way or that. The world is, she would say. It just is, boy. He had been try­ing to wrest the rock free from an out­crop to build a fort for a game he was play­ing when an­other, larger rock dropped onto his thumb, caus­ing a large and throb­bing blood blis­ter be­neath the nail.

His mother swung Dor­rigo up onto the kitchen ta­ble where the lamp light fell strong­est and, avoid­ing Jackie Maguire’s strange gaze, lifted her son’s thumb into the light. Be­tween his sobs Jackie Maguire said a few things. His wife had the week pre­vi­ously taken the train with their youngest child to Launceston, and not re­turned.

Dor­rigo’s mother picked up her carv­ing knife. Along the blade’s edge ran a cream smear of con­gealed mut­ton fat. She placed its tip into the coals of the kitchen range. A small wreath of smoke leapt up and in­fused the kitchen with the odour of charred mut­ton. She pulled the knife out, its glow­ing red tip glit­ter­ing with sparkles of bril­liant white-hot dust, a sight Dor­rigo found at once mag­i­cal and ter­ri­fy­ing.

Hold still, she said, tak­ing hold of his hand with such a strong grip it shocked him.

Jackie Maguire was telling how he had taken the mail train to Launceston and gone look­ing for her, but he could find her nowhere. As Dor­rigo Evans watched, the red-hot tip touched his nail and it be­gan to smoke as his mother burnt a hole through the cu­ti­cle. He heard Jackie Maguire say —

She’s van­ished off the face of the earth, Mrs Evans. And the smoke gave way to a small gush of dark blood from his thumb, and the pain of his blood blis­ter and the ter­ror of the red-hot carv­ing knife were gone.

Scram, Dor­rigo’s mother said, nudg­ing him off the ta­ble. Scram now, boy. Van­ished! Jackie Maguire said. All this was in the days when the world was wide and the is­land of Tas­ma­nia was still the world. And of its many re­mote and for­got­ten out­posts, few were more for­got­ten and re­mote than Cleve­land, the ham­let of forty or so souls where Dor­rigo Evans lived. An old con­vict coach­ing vil­lage fallen on hard times and out of mem­ory, it now sur­vived as a rail­way sid­ing, a hand­ful of crum­bling Ge­or­gian build­ings and scat­tered ve­ran­dah-browed wooden cot­tages, shel­ter for those who had en­dured a cen­tury of ex­ile and loss.

Back­dropped by wood­lands of writhing peppermint gums and sil­ver wat­tle that waved and danced in the heat, it was hot and hard in sum­mer, and hard, sim­ply hard, in win­ter. Elec­tric­ity and ra­dio were yet to ar­rive, and were it not that it was the 1920s, it could have been the 1880s or the 1850s. Many years later Tom, a man not given to al­le­gory but per­haps prompted, or so Dor­rigo had thought at the time, by his own im­pend­ing death and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ter­ror of the old — that all life is only al­le­gory and the real story is not here — said it was like the long au­tumn of a dy­ing world.

Their fa­ther was a rail­way fet­tler, and his fam­ily lived in a Tas­ma­nian Govern­ment Rail­ways weath­er­board cot­tage by the side of the line. Of a sum­mer, when the wa­ter ran out, they would bucket wa­ter from the tank set up for the steam lo­co­mo­tives. They slept un­der skins of pos­sums they snared, and they lived mostly on the rab­bits they trapped and the wal­la­bies they shot and the pota­toes they grew and the bread they baked. Their fa­ther, who had sur­vived the de­pres­sion of the 1890s and watched men die of star­va­tion on the streets of Ho­bart, couldn’t be­lieve his luck at hav­ing ended up liv­ing in such a work­ers’ par­adise.

Dor­rigo Evans knew Jackie Maguire from the hol­i­days he some­times took with Tom. To get to Tom’s he would catch a ride on the back of Joe Pike’s dray from Cleve­land to the Fin­gal Val­ley turnoff.

As the old draught horse Joe Pike called Gra­cie ami­ably trot­ted along, Dor­rigo would sway back and forth and imag­ine him­self shap­ing into one of the boughs of the wildly snaking peppermint gums that fin­gered and flew through the great blue sky over­head. He would smell damp bark and dry­ing leaves and

20 Richard Flana­gan

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