On a day to remember all those who died or have suffered in armed conflict, it seemed fitting to be listening to one of Australia’s finest writers talk about the role of war.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, the 95th anniversary of the end of World War I, and the right setting for listening to Richard Flanagan discuss his latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, at The Lowy Institute.

The title of the book, which has received rapturous reviews, is taken from one of the most famous books of Japanese literature. Poet Matsuo Basho wrote a book of that name in 1689 in the form of a haibun — a nature journal that records the writer’s journey in both prose and haiku (the 17 syllable-poem). Flanagan’s book is also profoundly poetic.

The Tasmanian writer, author of the multi-award-winning Gould’s Book of Fish and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, has this time turned to his own life to write a book based on one of the most infamous experiences of World War II, the death camp on the Thai-Burma railway.

His late father, Archie, was one of the soldiers in that prisoner of war camp, where 60,000 Allied soldiers worked in shocking conditions to build a railway between Thailand and Burma for their Japanese captors. A total of 14,000 men died, including 2815 Australians. Flanagan grew up listening to his father’s stories about the camp, in particular the example of Lieutenant Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop, the famous surgeon, whose heroism and compassion helped to keep many of the men alive.

A few days before Anzac Day this year, Archie Flanagan, 98, rang his son to ask about the book, to be told that it was finished. Later that day he died.

Last night, Flanagan, who spent 12 years writing the book and travelled widely to interview survivors from the armed forces on all sides, said that there were marked differences between the British and Australian prisoners of war.

The British officers forbade the enlisted men from fishing for food in the River Kwai, because they had fishing rods and wanted to catch fish there. Weary Dunlop’s camp was much more egalitarian, he said. Unlike the British, the officers worked on the railway alongside the men, and they pooled the small stipends they received to buy drugs and food for everyone.

Flanagan went to Japan to interview survivors. Just before he met one of the guards, he realised his interviewee was the infamous Lizard, the Ivan the Terrible of the camp, and the only man he had ever heard his father speak of with violent intent. The man was sentenced to death for war crimes after the war; later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released in a general amnesty in 1956.

The man, Lee Hak Rae, “liked to slap the Australian prisoners, so I asked him to hit me as hard as he could. He hit me three times, and the third time the whole room seemed to move.”

“It was an earthquake, 7.3 on the Richter scale. The room we were in swayed violently for half a minute. I saw the Lizard frightened. I saw, too, that wherever evil is, it wasn’t in that room with us,” Flanagan told the North Sydney crowd. “He was a gentle and generous old man who had an inexplicable shame in him that he wished to exorcise.”

The writer said that what struck the Japanese was how communally the Australians had behaved, describing it as a “strange sort of survival, which speaks about the best and the worst of us”. Former Australian politician Tom Uren, another survivor of the camp, told Flanagan he had learned about socialism over there.

Asked about current wars, Flanagan said that “everyone is a fool in war, and everyone suffers. It is humanity at its worst and best. It’s not a question of blame; we should never go to war except for the strongest of reasons. Unfortunately Australia seems to go to war for the weakest of reasons.”

“The war in Afghanistan has been a monumental catastrophe,” he added.

The writer said he deplored the way asylum seekers had been described during the last federal election. “We should never allow that because once you start [promoting] these ideas, you take the same steps that end up on the Death Railway. Poisonous language can seep into the soul of the national body, and that’s wrong.”