Richard Flanagan trained as a historian, and his novels have often emphasised the redemptive power of memory. For his characters, though, remembering is a strenuous business. There are traps to be avoided and barriers to overcome – an obstacle course of crying jags, guilt-ridden stupors, deathbed hallucinations. The frozen sea of the characters’ inner lives needs vigorous axe work, and the truths that are revealed will usually be painful. Still, the past demands a reckoning in these novels, and comforting fictions have to be set aside – not least because, in Flanagan’s books, it’s the comforting fictions that cause most of the trouble.
In The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), the painfully-recovered truth is personal and domestic. It takes several decades, and several hundred pages, for the heroine to confront the fact of her mother’s suicide. In Death of a River Guide (1994), on the other hand, the protagonist’s sorrows reflect a more public tragedy. Drowning under a waterfall, Aljaz Cosini – the somewhat dyspeptic narrator – is assailed by fitful visions of his family history, which is also a symbolic history of Tasmania. It’s caustic stuff: a story of dirt-poor trappers, convicts reduced to cannibalism, Aboriginal women kidnapped and raped by sealers. He sees his ancestors’ genteel evasions, ‘the whelps of an old crawler . . . putting on the plum’. Aljaz isn’t too happy about these visions, and he heckles quite a lot (‘Piss off!’). But they keep coming. Eventually, he realises that his lifelong discontent has taken ‘its form and its energy from a lie’:
The lie that the blackfellas had died out. That the ex-convicts had left the island for gold rushes in other countries. That only pure free white settler stock remained. Like all great lies there was some truth in these assertions . . . But at the end of the day most blackfellas and convicts remained on the island, sick with syphilis and sadness and fear and madness and loss. And when the long night fell they slept together.
Most descendants of the ‘blackfellas and convicts’ have ‘denied their parents and invented new lineages’. But Aljaz hasn’t, or at least he doesn’t any more. He dies surrounded by visions of his ancestors, with vague relief and a mystical sense of belonging.
Death of a River Guide and The Sound of One Hand Clapping are both circular in structure, beginning and ending at the same point in narrative time: Aljaz drowns in the river, the heroine’s mother disappears, and the full significance of both events is only revealed the second time around. The narrative circle is closed with some finality, and it also brings the protagonists a kind of release. The past, in both novels, is ultimately immutable, and Flanagan’s heroes reserve their bitterest scorn for the self-interested purveyors of the ‘necessary, sustaining lie’.
Flanagan’s latest novel is a work of a different order of ambition, and its approach is at once more playful and more pessimistic. The narrative is circular, but this time its significance is wilfully opaque, suggesting a nightmare of infinite regression and repetition. Redemption, whatever that might mean, is not on the cards. The past is a chaos of competing fabrications, and our guides are all forgers. There are jokes and parodies, allegories and anachronisms; and lyrical flights that don’t necessarily succeed. Despite many inscrutable flourishes, however, the book’s most insistent themes – the horrors of 19th-century Van Diemen’s Land and their ironic application as a funhouse mirror for contemporary society – are hammered brutally home.
The novel opens in Flanagan’s native city of Hobart, Tasmania, in the present. The frame narrator, who calls himself ‘Sid Hammet’, has been making a living by forging antique furniture, which he sells to American tourists, although he says he’s really selling a story: ‘an American story, a happy, stirring tale of Us Finding Them Alive and Bringing Them Back Home’. Then the authorities close his business down, and he goes looking for a new line of work. Rummaging in a junk shop on a draughty winter morning, he comes across a dilapidated book. He steals it, reads it, and becomes obsessed.
This book is the manuscript of Gould’s Book of Fish, which immediately announces itself as something special. Its binding emits a supernatural glow, and – rather like Borges’s ominous ‘Book of Sand’ – its contents don’t seem to end: ‘each time I opened the Book of Fish what amounted to a new chapter miraculously appeared.’ Purportedly written by one William Buelow Gould, a 19th-century ‘recidivist convict artist’, the book contains a spiralling, multi-coloured text interspersed with paintings of fish. Sid is entranced by its ‘clandestine rainbow of tales’, and decides to investigate further. He finds another, text-free Book of Fish in the depths of the Allport Library – part of Tasmania’s State Library – but the experts are uniformly sceptical about his manuscript. Most of them assume it’s a forgery, and ‘the eminent colonial historian Professor Roman de Silva’ pronounces it a ‘sad pastiche’ bearing no relation to the documented facts. ‘If you were to publish it as a novel,’ the Professor adds, ‘the inevitable might happen: it could win literary prizes.’ Sid takes great offence: ‘it had never struck me as being sufficiently dull-witted and pompous to be mistaken for national literature.’
Having talked up the manuscript to a reckless degree, Flanagan now gets rid of it. Sid comes across the elusive closing chapter, which disturbs him in ways he doesn’t explain. As soon as he finishes reading it, the manuscript dissolves into a puddle of brackish water: ‘a desolate horror, utter and huge as abandonment, gripped me.’ Bereaved, he writes out the text from memory, supplementing it with pictures from ‘the wordless Allport Book of Fish’. This, he reveals, is the version we are about to read – a version whose accuracy is ‘a bone of contention’ at best. Then Sid gets left behind, in bizarre circumstances. Admiring a ‘weedy seadragon’ in a friend’s fish tank, he suddenly undergoes some kind of soul-transference, and finds himself inside the tank looking out. He sees his former self as a ‘bedraggled man staring in at me’ – ‘that man who would, I now had the vanity of hoping, finally tell my story’.
The chapter ends, and on page 41 Gould’s narrative finally begins. It’s highly confusing at first, but after a while a few points of reference emerge. Gould seems to be writing his manuscript some time around 1830 at the British penal colony of ‘Sarah Island’ – Macquarie Harbour, in other words. He has been sentenced to death for an unspecified offence, and is currently held in a cell below the tide line. His cell fills up with seawater twice a day, leaving only a foot of air in which to breathe. His jailer, Pobjoy, brings him scraps of tattered parchment, on which he paints clichéd ‘scenes of bucolick bliss’. Pobjoy sells the paintings for his own profit, but Gould hoards enough of the materials to write his illegal manuscript, which he hides in the ceiling whenever the tide is up. Inkless, he uses whatever comes to hand – blood, squid ink, laudanum, turquoise, shit – and in the US edition the book’s print changes colour accordingly; each chapter is also prefaced by a painting of a fish.
Gould’s biography emerges in fits and starts. His father, a ‘French Jewish weaver’, died during his conception, and his Irish mother died during his birth. Brought up in an English poorhouse and educated by a paedophile priest, he claims to have had numerous adventures around the world – including an unlikely stint in Louisiana, where, he says, he learned painting from a certain ‘Jean-Babeuf Audubon’, presumably a near relative of John James Audubon. On returning to England, he ‘lived the life of a rat’ for twenty years; he was eventually arrested in Bristol, accused of forgery and transported to Van Diemen’s Land. After causing maximum offence with a series of satirical paintings – notably, Labour in Vain, which showed ‘an exasperated white woman’, modelled on the Governor’s wife, determinedly scrubbing ‘a black baby in a wooden tub’ – he was banished to Sarah Island, charged with using a false name.
It soon becomes clear that this penal colony is a fairly unusual place. The tortures and indignities are plausible enough: the prisoners are used as slave labour, whipped at the slightest provocation, and forced to wear thirty-pound leg-irons made ‘deliberately jagged to lacerate the flesh’. But the people in charge are quite a bit larger than life, and the island often seems more like Laputa or Macondo than the historical Macquarie Harbour. The nameless Commandant, for instance, is never seen in public without a disturbing gold mask. He suffers from syphilis and ‘a strange variant of St Vitus’s dance’, which he treats with a mixture of mercury and laudanum. Through his dealings in exotic goods like ‘sulphur-crested cockatoos . . . trained to recite melancholic verse in the manner of Pope’, he has ‘established links, at first commercial & then political, with Javanese traders & several newly independent South American countries’. Inflamed by letters from his sister in England, Miss Anne, he embarks on grandiose projects aimed at reinventing Europe and even improving on it. He builds a circular railway, for example, and surrounds it with crude backdrops showing the wonders of the world. As he rides on his train, admiring the painted scenery, the land concealed behind it is despoiled by intensive logging:
the rains came, & while the Commandant gasped in astonishment as the crowded chaos of the isle of Manhattan ceded to the trackless glory of the recently discovered American Rockies, first the soil, then several mountains washed away, so that when the . . . sawyers returned the following summer they were confronted with an immense & entirely disorientating boulder desert to the north.
So much for Colonial Culture and Colonial Commerce.
More abstract concerns are represented by the colony’s surgeon, a grotesque figure by the name of Mr Lempriere, who, exhaustingly, speaks only in capital letters. A follower of Linnaeus (‘great swedish natural historian’), he has a mania for classification, and hopes one day to arrange all the convicts in classes ranging from 1 to 26 – ‘then on such basis make society anew’. He even corresponds with Jeremy Bentham, and wonders how ‘Bentham’s principle of the panopticon – a model prison in which all men could be constantly watched – might profitably be extended to natural history’. To this end, he charges Gould with painting fish as an aid to classification: ‘No more thinking that the natural & human worlds are entwined, but a scientifick basis for separation of the two, & human advancement on the basis of that scientifick difference for ever after . . . “Hierarchy?” offered I. “elysium,” said he.’ Gould sees his taxonomic duties as a worrying attempt ‘to re-create the natural world as a penal colony’. But he’s had worse offers, so he plays along. So much for Enlightenment Rationalism and the Progress of Science.
All this continues for a couple of hundred pages. It makes very entertaining reading. Gould’s fish-painting duties terrify him at first – he’s only really comfortable drawing Marat, Robespierre, wisteria or bald eagles – but he soon discovers he can render the fish by turning them into surreptitious caricatures of his masters. As a result, each chapter tells the story of how he painted the fish which opens it. Gould’s status on the island gradually improves, and he even enjoys a brief affair with the Commandant’s aboriginal mistress, ‘Twopenny Sal’. After a while, though, a crisis begins to brew. Rumours of liberation sweep the colony, and the convicts start to believe that Matt Brady, the bushranger, is coming to set them free. The Commandant grows increasingly deranged, and Mr Lempriere is consumed by a sudden passion for phrenology, with which he hopes to demonstrate the racial inferiority of the remaining native Tasmanians.
Lempriere eventually comes to an undignified end when he’s eaten alive by a monstrous pig he has raised. The phrenologist’s remains end up among his own gruesome samples, and London experts catalogue them as evidence of gross degeneracy – the same fate, incidentally, as that of an analogous character in Matthew Kneale’s novel English Passengers. Gould, meanwhile, is accused of the doctor’s murder and sent to the prison in which he begins to write his manuscript. Before he sets to work, though, he makes another discovery. Climbing through the space left by a broken flagstone in the ceiling, he finds a book-lined room above his cell. This turns out to be the colony’s secret registry, where Jorgen Jorgensen, the Commandant’s Danish clerk, has created an alternative history of Sarah Island. Jorgensen has excluded all mention of the Commandant’s more colourful activities from his archives, along with the colony’s extravagant torture programme:
I could only marvel at all that Jorgensen had created: for example, the long ordered columns in which he had tabulated statisticks showing a declining use of the lash over several years, the books of handwritten sermons, the drawings of new cells, etc etc, collectively depicting a regime of necessary corporal punishment . . . a model of the power of unremitting, tempered discipline to transform pickpockets into cobblers & catamites into Christians.
This fraudulent record sounds suspiciously like some of the sources used by orthodox contemporary histories of the Transportation System. Robert Hughes’s discussion of the Port Arthur penal colony could almost be a description of Jorgensen’s chronicle – although Hughes’s tone, predictably, is rather less admiring than Gould’s:
To scrutinise the punishment records . . . is to look into a microcosm of harsh, bureaucratic tedium. Its horror comes not from unrestrained cruelty (as the Gothic legends and popular horror stories of the place insisted) but rather from its opposite, the mechanical apportioning of strictly metered punishments designed to wear each prisoner down into bovine acceptance – [Governor] Arthur’s criterion of moral reform.
In fact, Gould’s Book of Fish has many more elliptical correspondences with history. Jorgensen’s archive begins to sound like the notorious ‘Black Books’ compiled by Edward Cook for Sir George Arthur’s proto-totalitarian penal regime. ‘By 1830,’ Hughes says, ‘Van Diemen’s Land had the most thorough files on its inhabitants, bond and free, of any community in the world.’ The Commandant’s train station has a precedent in Port Arthur, where Charles O’Hara Booth built Australia’s first passenger railway with convict labour. Even the surgeon’s correspondence with Bentham – which looks like a too cute nod to Foucault – turns out to be less unlikely than it might sound: it seems that Bentham repeatedly wrote to David Collins, Lieutenant-Governor of the Port Philip colony, encouraging him to build a panopticon in New South Wales. A convict called Pobjoy exists in history, as does a penal chronicler called Lemprière, who worked at Macquarie Harbour as a storekeeper – although Flanagan’s character also shares his name with the author of the famous Classical Dictionary. And of course there really was a William Buelow Gould – a convict artist, born in Liverpool, who painted fish for a naturalist at Macquarie Harbour, ‘served several prison terms after further convictions for theft’, and died in Hobart in 1853. Ironically, given his fictional counterpart’s distaste for classification, the historical Gould lent his name to a freshwater crayfish, Astacopsis gouldii. His weirdly expressive painting of the fish is reproduced in Flanagan’s book.
There are more than a hundred pages still to come in Gould’s Book of Fish after the fictional Gould has discovered the secret registry, and Flanagan is ready with the metafictional bells and whistles (and hooters, sirens, klaxons, carillons). There’s a symbolic swordfight, a hallucinatory journey across the Tasmanian interior, and even a scene in which Gould finds himself reading Sid Hammet’s opening pages. After many recursions and narrative loop-the-loops, we end up pretty much where we began: in Hobart, in the present, with various arch and contradictory closing suggestions about Gould’s circular story. There is, of course, a suspicion of overkill in all this, and the book is densely packed with heavily thematic but often mystifying digressions: there are echoes of Joyce, Marx, Sartre and Kafka, as well as of several 18th-century writers; numbered lessons in ‘colonial art’; esoteric commentaries on the nature of time and history; opaque asides on Pliny, ‘Lake poetry’, Voltaire and the French Revolution. Still, as Gould remarks, ‘you make a straight road like the Romans & you are lucky to get three words: Veni, vidi, vici. You have a crooked goat path like the Greeks all over the Acropolis & what do you get? The entire damn Odyssey & Oedipus Rex, that’s what.’
Magical-realist colonial-protest novel, Borgesian found-manuscript tale, anti-Enlightenment Foucauldian fable, an Oulipo-style fiction built around Gould’s paintings as Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies is built around the Tarot deck; shaggy dog story, parody, satire on modern Tasmania – the list could go on. Gould’s Book of Fish is an ambitious book, and it’s hardly surprising that, occasionally, it doesn’t quite come off. Some readers will probably mutter about unearned grievances, and others will be repelled by the extremely high levels of bookishness. Expounded like this, the novel does sound rather schematic. But Flanagan somehow makes it work on the page – largely through the mighty voice he has devised for Gould, which echoes with distortions and rageful humour. ‘I’ll make the mark my way,’ he says:
be buggered if I won’t & I know I’ll be damned if I do, for it may not be Lake poetry or Ovid or that damned dwarf Pope but it will be the best I can do and like no other has. Rough work with a soul will always be open to all, including condemnation and reviling, while fine work housing emptiness is closed to all insults & is easily ivied over with paid praises.
In its closing pages, the book hints fairly strongly that its pages have been housing emptiness all along. But despite the ornate pediments and the crazy arabesques, it still comes across as rough work with a soul.