Numbers Game

A novelist’s indictment of how we account for our history


Question 7 by Richard Flanagan; Knopf, 288 pp., $28

In Japan, on a cold day in the winter of 2012, Australian writer Richard Flanagan stood at the entrance of the mine where his father had labored as a POW during the Second World War. He found “no memorial, no sign, no evidence … that whatever had once happened had ever happened.” The following year, Flanagan published The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel inspired by his father’s experiences that won the 2014 Booker Prize.

Flanagan’s new book, Question 7—named for the seventh question in Anton Chekhov’s “Questions Posed by a Mad Mathematician”—is a collection of fragments of memoir, fiction, and history. Together they form an account of various historical events that have affected, albeit often indirectly, the lives of
Flanagan and members of his family. Flanagan writes about H. G. Wells’s romance with Rebecca West, the mass killing of Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples by British colonists in the 19th century, the beauty of the Tasmanian landscape now threatened by development, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the work of physicists involved in the development of nuclear fission.

“Who loves longer,” Chekhov asks in his seventh question, “a man or a woman?” Flanagan grapples with this throughout Question 7, explaining that he understands it to be “about how the world from which we presume to derive meaning and purpose is not the true world.” The absurdity of the world, of war, of trying to decipher truth from memory or history, of trying to express oneself adequately with language, and of trying to understand why things occur and why people act in certain ways—these are Flanagan’s preoccupations. Who loves longer? “You, me, a Hiroshima resident or a slave labourer?” he asks. The larger question stands in the background: “Why do we do what we do to each other?” Having stood at the site of his father’s internment and reckoned with the past in the most personal of ways, Flanagan hazards an answer: “There is no why.”

The bombing of Hiroshima is a central event in Question 7. Flanagan credits the bomb with saving his father’s life and, by extension, making his own life possible. “None of this is an argument for the bombing of Hiroshima,” he writes. “We pretend there is a moral calculus in war … that there is … an answer for all things that can be found in numbers.” And yet, despite his protestation, Flanagan does compare the numbers—of those who died at Hiroshima, those killed in other bombings, and those who might have been killed had the atomic bombs not been dropped on Japan. Some comparison of these losses is, I think, implied, with Flanagan’s questioning of our current accounting.

This tension—between the author’s desire to judge and compare and his assertion that to seek such answers is to entertain absurdity—haunts Question 7. Even the reader is not spared; we are divided by Flanagan into “good readers” and “poor readers.” Turning the judgment back on himself, Flanagan similarly divides writers into “good writers” and “poor” ones. Life “is never binary,” he writes, and yet, throughout Question 7, the binaries of virtue and evil, hero and villain, good and poor, are ever present.

Flanagan may have intended his book to be a meditation on uncertainty and absurdity, but the overall effect can be confusing. Question 7 relates disparate historical events to Flanagan’s own life, while simultaneously musing on the unreliability of memory, the foibles of moral judgment, and the limitations of language. This is a lot to bite off in fewer than 300 pages. With regard to Hiroshima, Flanagan writes that, as in Chekhov’s stories, “the only fools are those with answers” and that there is no “moral calculus to death.” Elsewhere, though, he presents us with stories of heroes and villains, good and evil, in which his own moral judgments seem clear. Question 7 is a work of literature in which the author questions literature’s ability to fully express the world.

Question 7 is at its most moving when it shifts from philosophical debate and does away with fictionalized retellings of the lives of scientists and the love life of H. G. Wells to look instead at Flanagan’s complex relationship with his family, particularly his parents. He writes that his father was a “vaporous” presence, a man who “had passed through something … [that] wasn’t ever really talked about.” And yet, when watching the television “on a late Saturday afternoon,” he “would pick us up and we would slowly waltz.” In these descriptions, Flanagan moves beyond the hero-villain binary and anxiety over passing moral judgment. His simple prose belies his critique of the limitations of language: in these passages, his words are enough.

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Nell Pierce is the author of the novel A Place Near Eden, winner of the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. She has an MFA from The New School in New York City and currently lives in Melbourne.


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