Putting on the Plum

Christopher Tayler

  • Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan
    Atlantic, 404 pp, £16.99, June 2002, ISBN 1 84354 021 5

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.

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