Has Richard Flanagan written the "first masterpiece of the 21st century?"by Alexander Linklater / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
If, for much of its formative history, Australia feared becoming the runt continent of the world then Tasmania, the diminutive island at its southeastern corner, imagined itself as the Australian orphan-a footnote to an addendum. The island has long endured mockery, even from Irishmen. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift placed it somewhere in the vicinity of Lilliput, as if it bordered on unreality. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce riddled it as “tossmania”-a nasty winter ailment.
What gets up Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan’s crack, though, is not so much old world scorn as the mainland Australian intelligentsia and its Europhiliac notions of high art; and more particularly, its lickspittle reverence for American culture. “There’s been an ongoing debate in Australia about how we should write books like the Americans,” says Flanagan, while on a US booksigning tour, “as if we should be writing novels like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, which is just a tedious rehash of Sinclair Lewis novels of the 1920s with some contemporary toning. Why should we want to write books like that?”
The culprits, says Flanagan, are merely Australian underdogs who need someone even more abject than themselves to lift a leg at-Tasmania being a favoured lamp-post. Flanagan’s offshore homeland gives him splendid leverage to vent spleen against a legacy of mainland snobs and their attitude to Tasmania: “For two centuries, the people of my island were defined by them and their leprous ilk-as stupid, rednecked, inbred, racist, two-headed convict bastards. For two centuries, we were a metaphor for everything Australians hated about themselves.”
Flanagan grew up believing that if he wanted to be a writer, he would have to write about other places because “life was more real there.” Like an earlier generation of Australian authors (Clive James, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey) Flanagan left. But only briefly. In 1984, he became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford-a town and a university which turned out, after all, not to be so real. The Rhodes register still lists him as a “roof painter.” He wrote an MLitt about British unemployment and, thoroughly disillusioned, went back home. Each of the three novels he has subsequently written-Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping and, his new one, Gould’s Book of Fish-are repeated attempts to plunge back into the story of his own island. Flanagan says he feels like William Faulkner who, when asked why he only wrote about Mississippi, replied that he didn’t have time in his life to learn another country.
He enjoys comparing his origins to those of great novelists who worked outside the literary citadels of their time: Flaubert in Normandy, Joyce writing about Dublin from Trieste, M?rquez dreaming of Colombia in Mexico City. But Flanagan becomes acutely uncomfortable when compared to them as a writer. This began to happen while he was in America to publicise Gould’s Book of Fish; where the novel was touted as “the first masterpiece of the 21st century.”
None of the US reviewers had actually applied the M-word. But they seemed to think someone had; so they started calling it the book that was being called a masterpiece, which was just as effective. The influential New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, likened it to Moby Dick and Ulysses. Accompanied by some sharp word-of-mouth from Flanagan’s publishers, Grove Atlantic, that was enough to get the ball rolling. That, and the fact that it is indeed a strange and amazing book. Illustrated with curious paintings by its convict-protagonist, William Buelow Gould, the text of each chapter is printed in a different colour; an unusual and expensive fabrication.
American critics were divided, zig-zagging between the ecstatic and the counter-ecstatic. But Gould’s Book of Fish took on a life of its own. Within a month of its little-known author’s visit in April, this densely literary novel had sold out its entire print run and was high on both LA Times and New York Times bestseller lists. Grove Atlantic fretted over how to reprint such a costly and complicated book fast enough to meet demand. By the end of his tour, Flanagan had reverted to self-abnegating Tasmanian type. “To be a writer here is normally just a journey of humility,” he said. “But now I’m facing the catastrophe of over-reverence. Americans like their writers as geniuses and they want you to take that walk-on role. I just want to go home.”
Is Gould’s Book of Fish an Australian masterpiece? Flanagan dismisses the idea. “It’s untrue, and false to the book I was trying to write.” Yet his protestation of innocence is mildly disingenuous. He goes on to call his novel, “a folly of ridiculous ambitions.” If the notion of a masterpiece is a fraud, then this is a complicated one. It is a story about forgery. Gould’s original book is an obscure yet fantastic memoir, written and illustrated by a convict-artist. When it is discovered by Flanagan’s narrator, Sid Hammet, a pompous historian informs him that it’s a fake. But, as a caveat, the historian adds, “if you were to publish it as a novel… it could win literary prizes.” Hammet is irritated. “The Book of Fish may have had its shortcomings,” he fumes, “but it had never struck me as being sufficiently dull-witted and pompous to be mistaken for national literature.”
William Buelow Gould was a real historical felon, convicted of forgery and transported to the Sarah Island penal colony in the 1820s, where he made his book of painted fish. Flanagan stumbled across it 11 years ago, and started writing his novel in 1997. Sid Hammet, after narrating his version of this discovery, is revealed as an alias for Gould himself. So Flanagan, through Hammet, assumes the voice of Gould-forging the forger. “Books and their authors are indivisible,” Hammet declares, quoting Flaubert who, when interrogated as to the real model for Madame Bovary, retorted: “Madame Bovary. C’est moi!”
The pompous historian’s prediction has already come true. While touring the US, Richard Flanagan won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize, from a shortlist which included Alice Munro, Nadine Gordimer and Ian McEwan. Only time will tell whether Gould’s Book of Fish is sufficiently dull-witted to be incorporated into Australian national literature. Certainly, it contains enough literary mind-benders to torture a whole penal colony of academics. Its meditation on antipodean mythology is designed to flummox.
Still, there is pong of uniqueness to Flanagan’s novel that goes deeper than trickery. Just as only an Irishman could have created Molly Bloom, only a Tasmanian could have dreamed up William Buelow Gould. Gould is sunk neck-deep in his place, which is both a dank prison and a womb of phantasmagoric imaginings. Tasmania, in its earlier incarnation as Van Diemen’s Land, was the dark centre of Australia’s founding colonial story. It was here that the most radical genocide of the Aborigines took place. And it was here that the Sarah Island penal colony was established. Between 1820 and 1832, according to Flanagan’s historian, this was “the most dreaded place of punishment in the entire British empire.”
Australian literature has been checkered with convict stories since publication in the 1870s of Martin Cash: A Personal Narrative and Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. In 1987, Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, marked the bicentenary of the first prisoner fleet to set out from England; and Peter Carey’s Booker-winning True Story of the Kelly Gang has shown that bushranging legends live on. But it is the Kelly-type of roaming outlaw that has more often caught the Australian imagination, rather than the miserably incarcerated prisoner.
Some critics feel that the idea of convict literature can only be historical pastiche or post-colonial clich?, and is irrelevant to modern Australia. For well known novelists such as Patrick White, David Malouf or Tim Winton, the echoes of penal history have been merely incidental.
No Australian novelist has ever gone to Flanagan’s extreme and told a convict’s story entirely from within the head of an imprisoned narrator-in the moments as he awaits execution-gathering the past into the present and implying that it is all still going on inside the head of a present-day narrator. “I was Australia,” groans Gould/Hammet/Flanagan. “I was dying before I was born.”
Flanagan got the idea for his novel when he first saw the fish which Gould had been commissioned to paint for scientific purposes by a prison surgeon. The fish were rendered naturalistically but, to Flanagan, they seemed to possess grotesque and oddly human faces, as if Gould had smuggled into their expressions the cruelties of his prison world.
“It was wonderful rude-man’s art,” Flanagan says. “I was moved that someone in great adversity, touched by no great ability, had somehow imbued his work with such humanity that it touched me nearly two centuries later.” Each chapter of Flanagan’s book is illustrated by a tormented fish; and the text of each is coloured according to the material (blood or shit or purple prose) that Gould uses to write it with.
The thrashings and tortures of Sarah Island are rendered with both mesmeric horror and shocking hilarity. When Gould is kicked to a pulp by his jailer, Pobjoy, he retorts by pelting his tormentor with warm turds. When a Glaswegian machine breaker is crushed by a communal torture device known as the “cockchafer,” his death is unspeakably pitiable. Less so is the death of Lempriere, the lunatic prison surgeon. Devoured by the prison pig, his skull is shipped backed to England where, mistaken for that of an Aborigine, it is used as proof of black inferiority.
Gould’s Book of Fish creates demented, antipodean inversions of old-world culture. The prison commandant is himself a convict with visions of grandeur, who sets out to rebuild Europe on the island in the form of a doomed dome of folly, called the Mah Jong Hall. Real historical figures, other than Gould, flicker through the story. And if the fiction seems excessive, so was their history. Jorgen Jorgensen is keeper of the prison registry, a masterful confection of lies intended to dupe colonial administrators into believing the jail a model of rationality. Jorgensen’s actual life was no less bizarre. A Scandinavian explorer, he witnessed the burning of the king of Denmark’s palace, borrowed money from Goethe, lost it at the gambling tables of Berlin, led an invasion of Iceland in 1809 (where he briefly held power) and ended up as a convict in Van Diemen’s Land, working as a spy for the notorious governor, Sir George Arthur.
Gould’s book of fish, however, is not a work of historical fiction, not even a work of historical fiction engorged by fantasy. Gould, through his narrator, Hammet, is fixed in the present. Both Richard Flanagan’s previous novels use similar devices. Death of a River Guide is told in the dying moments of a man as he is trapped, drowning in the rapids of the Franklin river. As he dies, the life of the island flows into his consciousness, all the way back to the rape of the Aboriginal woman from whom he is descended. The Sound of One Hand Clapping is told in flashback, as a woman discovers the stories of her, and Tasmania’s, eastern European immigrant legacy. The film of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, directed by Flanagan himself, is a tissue of flashbacks.
It is not hard to read Flanagan’s own story into his books. Aged 41, he has found his fictional voice in a constant return to his island. For several years he worked as a river guide, nearly drowning on two occasions. Like the mother in The Sound of One Hand Clapping, his wife comes from a Slovenian background. He is himself descended from Irish convicts, transported for stealing corn during the great famine. But his are never merely tales of Tasmanian woe. Flanagan’s grandfather had the habit of going down on his knees every morning and giving thanks to God for the beauty of the island he lived on.
A consequence of Flanagan’s brief period at Oxford is a mistrust of narrative, academic history. In each novel, time becomes the ever-present consciousness of a central character, a sedimentary process by which the past is repeatedly compacted into the present. It is no simple effect to pull off, and in his first two books he often strains for effect, purpling the writing with significance. His river guide wants to tell “the terrible soul history of his country” and describes the past as “a nightmare, and I want to wake up.” Both are effortful echoes of Joyce, forging “the uncreated conscience” of his race and famously decrying history as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (itself an echo of Marx).
But with Gould, a transformation occurs. The narrative principles are the same, the literary echoes are even denser, but the voice is suddenly freed from the weight of derivation. It is a clear Tasmanian voice; and Gould’s tale, set in 1831, becomes contemporary.
Why Flanagan should be toying with colonial nightmares in a post-Olympic Australian landscape is not clear. Flanagan speaks of Australia’s racist treatment of refugees, its renewed shunning of Aboriginals and the craven failure of republicanism. But these in themselves are not convincing analogues for Gould’s ecstasy of self-flagellation and creative forgery; or his love affair with the Aboriginal slave, Twopenny Sal.
So who is Gould, if not quite either an historical figure nor a symbol of the new Australia; just a scatological literary confection? This is what Gould says:
I was the past that had been flogged on the triangle, but I am the flagellator dipping his cat in the sand bucket to give the tails extra bite; I was the past that fell with choked scream through the gallows’ green wood trapdoor, but I am the hangman swinging on the dying man’s legs; I was the past bought & chained & raped by sealers, but I am the sealer making the black woman eat her own thigh & ears.
These lines take their rhythm from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, “A Brief Refutation of Time:”
Time is a river that bears me away, but I am the river. Time is a tiger that tears me apart, but I am the tiger. Time is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.
Flanagan may be stealing fire from Borges but he is not merely imitating him. Flanagan’s words reek too much of the place they come from. The effect of his forgery is to generate time and place concurrently, fabricating, out of some peculiar fish, an independent world. Australia may not want a definitive, penal book. But that shouldn’t matter to Flanagan. If it is a masterpiece, it’s a Tasmanian one. And he’s gone home.