Certain oft-heard criticisms of President Bush’s policies seem rich, too, with potential implications for literature. There is the call, after seven years of awful decisions based on faith, to reembrace realism. There is the frustrated insistence that words and how precisely and intentionally we use them matter: see the War on Terror, with its battle cry against a metaphor instead of a strategic military target. Two recent novels, meanwhile, bring us news from countries that have been dramatically affected by that war. Though they are quite different, both novels take up the weightiest political questions of the day, and allow themselves the expression, not always deemed permissible in fiction, of anger about recent events. Both would thus seem to be firmly “reality-based.” Yet they’re also fascinated by reality’s seeming relativity, its elusiveness—or at least our tragic difficulty in apprehending it.
What if, besides the facts usually gathered under the category heading “reality,” we were to consider something that is real but not so easy to measure: the experience of human beings as they walk down the solitary paths of their lives? All those lonely paths, dimly lit, zigzagging through a forest of myths and images from the local culture. For the climate, imagine conditions half helplessly inherited, half neglectfully or malevolently shaped by some government or other; for the weather, think of winds of trade, often gusting, and a drizzle of corruption. Barriers of class and status line the banks as each path continues onto the smaller, now unpredictable and infinitely varying features in the landscape: the individual’s store of lived memories, lessons taught well or badly by parents, independent resolve or weakness, open-mindedness to other points of view or the lack thereof, love if the person can find it, luck either good or fatal. I am speaking allegorically here; there is in fact no walk down any path in either of these novels. But on a certain level these books also speak through allegory. Through it they try to capture that place where two clashing tones in contemporary life—a cartoon bluntness and a complexity that feels too vast to master—meet, and the fragile subjectivity of one person lines up with the drift of a nation.
It was not a given that the latest novel from the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan would hew closer to the cartoon end of things. Until his new thriller, The Unknown Terrorist, came out last spring, Flanagan was best known in America for his third novel, the sui generis, formidably inventive, passionately Tasmanian Gould’s Book of Fish, which conjured a dense, strange world from a few scraps of fact. In the nineteenth century, an Irish convict named William Buelow Gould was shipped to Van Diemen’s Land—Tasmania’s name before Australia became a nation, back when the place, despite its physical splendor, was a brutal island penal colony. By the time he died, this obscure, actual Gould apparently left behind some intriguing paintings of fish. In the novel’s prologue, a roguish modern-day narrator in the port…
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