LONDON - Novelist Richard Flanagan said he was ashamed to be Australian after winning the Man Booker Prize for his book "The Narrow Road to the Deep North", inspired by his father's experience as a prisoner of war.
The book tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon imprisoned in a Japanese work camp on the Thailand-Burma railway.
"The two great themes from the origin of literature are love and war: this is a magnificent novel of love and war," said academic AC Grayling, who presented the award at a glitzy ceremony in London's Guildhall on Tuesday evening.
"This is the book that Richard Flanagan was born to write." Flanagan is the third Australian to win the prize, which includes a trophy and an award of £50,000 (S$101,563).
In an interview with the BBC after receiving the accolade, the 53-year-old used the occasion to hit out at his home nation's environmental policies, just days after Prime Minister Tony Abbott said "coal is good for humanity".
"Australia has the most extraordinary environment and I don't understand why our government seems committed to destroying what we have that's unique in the world," said Flanagan, a long-time campaigner for the preservation of old growth forest in his home state of Tasmania.
"To be frank, I'm ashamed to be Australian when you bring this up." Abbott made the comment while opening a new mine in Queensland state, trumpeting coal as "an essential part of economic future".
Death railway influenced life
The author of "The Sound of One Hand Clapping" (1998) and "Wanting" (2008), Flanagan said the idea of the so-called "Death Railway" had influenced his life.
"As a child, my father taught me the Japanese words 'san byaku san ju go'. It was his number, 335, that he answered to as a slave labourer of the Japanese on the Death Railway," Flanagan said.
"It was, I guess, a strange mystery. Occasionally I glimpsed what that enigma might be in laughter, a grimace, a hand momentarily tensing on my shoulder, or the recited lines of others. After many years, I discovered it was also me.
"And so I am a child of the Death Railway. I am a writer. And sometimes it falls to a writer to seek to communicate the incommunicable." Flanagan worked on the novel for 12 years, and his father died the day that it was finished.
The Australian left school at 16, before later winning a scholarship to the University of Oxford in England, where he completed a Master of Letters degree and worked as a river guide. He initially wrote history books, before switching to fiction.
The two US authors listed for the first time after the award was expanded to allow American nominees - Joshua Ferris for his tale of identity theft "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour" and Karen Joy Fowler's for her family drama "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" - went home empty handed.
The Man Booker prize, which began in 1969, guarantees a huge upsurge in book sales and a worldwide readership, and being shortlisted is itself considered an accolade.
Previously, the award had been limited to the best original full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe.
The favourite to win the prize had been Britain's Indian-born Neel Mukherjee for his Calcutta-based family saga "The Lives of Others".
Also shortlisted were Britain's Ali Smith for an art novel "How to be Both", while 2010 winner Howard Jacobson was also in the running with a dystopian work, "J".
The decision to include US authors was criticised by some in the industry who said it would change the character of the awards.