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Cover of book: Question 7

Richard Flanagan
Question 7

Who could be grateful for the bombing of Hiroshima at 8.15am on August 6, 1945: an unprecedented, world-changing act of warfare that saw, as Richard Flanagan puts it, “60,000 Japanese souls ascending to heaven”? Flanagan might be.

Without the bomb, he believes his father, Archie, would have died as a prisoner of war, an experience the author fictionalised in his 2014 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. “Without Hiroshima,” says Flanagan, “there is no me.”

The Hiroshima–Flanagan link is part of a chain reaction at the centre of Flanagan’s latest book, Question 7. Also in the loop are wartime United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard – who first conceived the nuclear chain reaction – and the writers H. G. Wells and Rebecca West.

Tracing this chain backwards, one comes to the mind-bending origin of Flanagan’s 1961 birth in Longford, Tasmania: the 19-year-old “wild flame” West visiting the 46-year-old philanderer Wells at his home in 1912 and kissing him “in front of his bookcase, while talking about matters of literary style”.

Without that kiss and the affair that followed, Wells would not have written The World Set Free (1914), in which he foresees the atomic bomb. Szilard would not have read the novel, would not have been terrified by the idea of such a weapon falling into German hands and would not have persuaded Einstein to lobby Roosevelt. The Manhattan Project would not have happened. Flanagan would not exist and nor would the book under review.

Or would they? Flanagan derives the title, Question 7, from a short story by Anton Chekhov that is a parody of mental arithmetic tests put to schoolchildren. In that story, question 7 is: “Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?”

“You, me, a Hiroshima resident or a slave labourer?” echoes Flanagan, the last referring to POWs such as his father on the Thai–Burma Death Railway. “And why do we do what we do to each other? That’s question 7.”

With that in mind I appreciate that “grateful” may be not quite the right word regarding Flanagan and Hiroshima and that perhaps the question that opens this review has no answer.

“Chekhov’s genius,” says Flanagan, “lay in never presuming to give the answer.” In his stories, “the only fools are those with answers”. That, however, does not mean such questions should stop being asked. Hiroshima “is a question that can never be answered” but remains “the question we must keep asking, if only in order to understand that life is never binary, nor reducible to cant or code, but a mystery we at best apprehend”.

Is Question 7 Flanagan’s best book to date? I think it may be. It is his most intellectually complex and personally emotional work. It is neither a novel nor a memoir: perhaps it’s best described as literary nonfiction. In the acknowledgements, he cites his source material but adds that some of what happens is “pure fancy on my part”.

It is a love letter to his distant father and passionate mother – the extended passage on her death is tenderly beautiful – and to his island home. It is a lament of losses: historical, such as the genocide of Indigenous Tasmanians, and personal. It is written in the candid voice of a writer who realises he may not have got it right in his previous books and maybe still hasn’t done so.

Here he is on the “short, terrible period” that his father was a POW, a time never discussed, and the celebrated work of fiction based on it. Flanagan says that “even today” he can feel his father’s “gigantic, unknown yet understood history vibrating into me, its incommunicable yet clearly communicated meaning”.

“I realise writing this that memory is as much an act of creation as it is of testimony, and that one without the other is a tree without a trunk, wings without a bird, a book without its story … I wrote a novel seeking to understand these things. To resolve them. For the time I spent writing it I felt that the writing was a way of divining the undivinable. Only when I finished I realised I understood nothing.”

Towards the end is a page-turning chapter on 21-year-old Flanagan’s near-drowning as a guide on the Franklin River, a brush with mortality he fictionalised in his 1994 debut novel, Death of a River Guide. “It was a fear such as I had never known, a fear that was both physical and spiritual, a desolation as large as the universe into which I was now vanishing.”

This near-death leads to its own question 7: did he in fact die and “everything else has been an astonishing dream”? As someone who put his life in peril as a young man, I have long had similar thoughts. Did I die that night and is what has happened since some sort of parallel life? It is fascinating to read someone else asking themselves the same question. “Perhaps,” Flanagan writes, “this is a ghost story and the ghost is me.”

He continues that “life is always happening and has happened and will happen” and that writing and words exist to grasp a world that eludes them. “And so they tango eternally, words and the world, writers no more than dancing shoes sliding between the dancer and the floor.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Question 7".

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Question 7

By Richard Flanagan

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