Magical realism was invented, or reinvented, to address realities that seemed unmanageable—too big, too bizarre, too teemingly chaotic—for the ordinary modes of realistic fiction. As a way of writing novels, magical realism was perhaps not as original or as revolutionary as it seemed when we first encountered The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude; the presentation of the extraordinary as if it were the everyday is as old as Don Quixote. What was new about Günter Grass’s and Gabriel García Márquez’s novels was the way in which they managed to make real diamonds out of the ashes of contemporary history. Little Oskar’s tin drum rattled up an authentic rhythm for postwar Germany, while the mystical doings of the Buendía clan expressed both the seething passions and the melancholy languors of tropical Colombia.
A significant aspect of magical realism was that the latest manifestation of it, in and around the 1970s, had its origins not in academic studies, but in such active, indeed rackety, worlds as journalism (García Márquez), the plastic arts (Grass), and advertising (Salman Rushdie). The magical realists hold no torch for the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that shining Grail of so many of the Modernists. Despite the flash and crackle of their conjurings, Grass, García Márquez, and Rushdie, and their numerous imitators, seek to engage directly and vigorously with society, with politics, with history. Those who took One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a marvelous, grotesquely beautiful fable detached from real life were bound to have been consternated by the lightly veiled attack in the closing pages of the book on the United Fruit Company, which virtually ran Colombia for many years, before the drug barons came to power. Similarly, readers enjoying the metahistorical fabulation that is Gould’s Book of Fish will surely be made glum when, at the end, Richard Flanagan begins to speak portentously of “this country”—in his case, Australia in general, and Tasmania in particular—as if he were the chronicler of its secret but authentic history, battling against the myth-makers who will “forget what happened here…because any story will be better than the sorry truth that it wasn’t the English who did this to us but ourselves….” He is also all too ready to declare his authorial aims through the voice of his main character, the primitive painter of fish William Buelow Gould, as when Gould tells us
how my paintings were not meant for Science or Art, but for people, to make people laugh, to make people think, to give people company & give them hope & remind them of those they had loved & those who loved them yet, beyond the ocean, beyond death, how it seemed when I was painting important to paint that way.
It is perhaps unfair to take such a ringing declaration and quote it out of context, but the book, especially in its ending, is altogether too insistent on explaining and accounting for its, or at least Gould’s, artistic aims.
However, we have, following Flanagan’s own example, begun at the end, so let us ride the roller coaster back to the beginning.
It is necessary first of all to describe the physical appearance of this book. It is very handsomely made—the Grove edition was produced in Australia—each of the twelve chapters printed in a different shade of ink, from feces-brown through various pale greens and reds to a most delicate shade of purple. These colors match the inks which Gould the painter clandestinely manufactures from such substances as squid ink, green laudanum, the ground-up spikes of a sea urchin, or his own blood, and uses to paint his fish pictures, one of which is set as a frontispiece to each chapter. There was, it seems, a real William Buelow Gould, a prisoner in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, in the 1830s, who painted these pictures for his Book of Fish, now held, an author’s note tells us, “by the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania.” We assume that Gould’s Book of Fish contained pictures without text, and that Flanagan’s book of fish is entirely a work of fiction.
Richard Flanagan, who was born and lives in Tasmania, is the author of two previous novels, the Pincher Martin– like Death of a River Guide, in which the eponymous guide, Aljaz Cosini, lies under water awaiting death and reviewing his life, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, the raw and moving story of Sonja Buloh, the daughter of European immigrants to Australia, which displays Flanagan’s debt to Faulkner, who supplies a gnomic epigraph to Gould’s Book of Fish. The Australian novelist and critic Robert Dessaix puts it accurately when he describes Flanagan’s novelistic voice as one “rarely heard in Australia: almost violently masculine, shot through with heartbreaking delicacy of feeling.” In Gould’s Book of Fish Flanagan addresses the subject that all Australians, novelists and otherwise, must sooner or later feel themselves compelled to confront, namely, the country’s colonial and penal past.
The book opens almost in the fashion of a classic children’s adventure tale, with a nameless narrator describing how he chanced upon the handwritten and hand-painted Book of Fish in a junk shop in Salamanca, a wharfside area of the Tasmanian capital, Hobart. This narrator confesses to being a small-time forger, “distressing” items of furniture in various ways, including urinating on them, and selling them off as genuine antiques to American tourists from passing cruise ships. “It was the story, really,” we are told, “that the tourists were buying, of the only type that they would ever buy—an American story, a happy, stirring tale of Us Finding Them Alive and Bringing Them Back Home.” The forger’s confederates in trade are a Vietnamese refugee, Mr. Hung, and a woman called Rennie Conga. Although the reader might reasonably expect that these characters—the narrator’s Great Aunt Maisie also makes a brief appearance—will have parts to play in the main narrative, they are all, including the narrator, unceremoniously thrown overboard on page 38, not to be heard of again until they float up shimmeringly on the book’s penultimate page. However, there are hints throughout, many of them dropped with the force of a brick, that Gould’s—and Flanagan’s—book is itself a fake, a distressed narrative in more senses than one.
The discovery of the Book of Fish is momentously described:
Even my feverish pen cannot approach my rapture, an amazement so intense that it was as if the moment I opened the Book of Fish the rest of my world—the world!—had been cast into darkness and the only light that existed in the entire universe was that which shone out of those aged pages up into my astonished eyes.
The found book is instantly recognized as a magical object, its marbled cover giving off a purple glow, from which a “speckled phosphorescence” spreads onto the finder’s hands (incidentally, can it be intentional on the publisher’s part that the fake gold leaf on the book’s jacket spine deposits a fine coating of gilt onto the reader’s fingers after repeated readings?). As the narrator examines the fish paintings and pores over the palimpsest text, the reader is given a not-so-sly nudge: the book seems one that “never really started and never quite finished,” and reading it is “like looking into a charming kaleidoscope of changing views: a peculiar, sometimes frustrating, sometimes entrancing affair, but not at all the sort of open-and-shut thing a good book should be.” Well, ipse dixit. Eventually the book disappears entirely, deliquescing to a briny puddle on a bar counter.
Despite the narrator’s and, presumably, the author’s frequently expressed impatience with or even contempt for mere literature as against Life, this opening chapter—and, indeed, the entire book—is crowded with observations on the process of writing and the nature of art, both literary and pictorial. Mr. Hung, for instance, a devotee of Victor Hugo, is credited with a number of portentous dicta on the craft of literature, e.g.:
Maybe Mr. Hung with his shrine to Victor Hugo is right: to make a book, even one so inadequate as this wretched copy you now read, is to learn that the only appropriate feeling to [sic] those who live within its pages is love. Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defences human dignity has left, because in the end they remind us of what God once reminded us before He too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations—that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls. And more, moreover.
Or perhaps not.
The opening of the second chapter is also the opening of William Gould’s journal—the Book of Fish—the first forty pages of which, we are told, are missing. Adding to the confusion this lacuna causes is the fact that the events related in the first two surviving pages are wholly disconnected from the rest of the narrative, describing as they do Gould’s arrival in Van Diemen’s Land as a boy in 1803, apparently the prisoner of a Mr. Banks; there is mention too of a Lieutenant Bowen, and Thomas Moore’s Samoan princess Lalla Rookh. These matters are baffling, but are soon dismissed, and we find ourselves with the prisoner Billy Gould incarcerated on Sarah Island, the infamous prison-within-the-prison of Van Diemen’s Land, in a saltwater cell which fills twice a day, leaving him bobbing in the foot of air space that remains above the water at high tide. His companion is a large and silent creature whom he calls the King; much later we discover that this creature is in reality—in reality!—the corpse of Jorgen Jorgensen, a Danish scribe employed by the commandant of the prison island to write a maniacally detailed and Borgesianly fictional account of his years of command…. No more than halfway into Chapter Two and one is already out of breath.
Matters become less confusing, though if anything more outlandish, when we meet the prison surgeon, the Dickensian grotesque Mr. Lempriere, bald and pale and enormously fat, got up in swallow-tail coat and buckled shoes, resembling “a sufferer of the dropsy unsuccessfully masquerading as a Regency rake of yesteryear.” Lempriere is an enthusiast for all things modern, especially the science of classification—his hero is Linnaeus—a caricature of Enlightenment Man with which Flanagan has much mordant fun. In between attending floggings and supervising public hangings of miscreant convicts, Lempriere, having seen an example of Gould’s piscine art, co-opts him into his grand and futile scheme to classify and have painted every species of Antipodean fish, the text, along with Gould’s paintings, to be reproduced by his correspondent in London, Sir Cosmo Wheeler, Fellow of the Royal Society, in his projected work, Systema Naturae Australis. Lempriere, who speaks entirely in capitals—“’SEE ME,’ he at one point confided, ‘LATTER-DAY MEDICI—YOU BOTTICELLI!'”—is more a tiresome than an amusing invention, though he is the butt of some of Flanagan’s more outrageous jokes; before being eaten alive by his prize pig, he loses his penis after it is accidentally caught in a falling sash window, leading one to aver, not for the first time in the course of reading Gould’s Book of Fish, that Laurence Sterne has a lot to answer for.
Gould himself, for all his Blakean vehemence, is a curiously blurred figure. Bastard son of an Irishwoman and a “French Jewish weaver,” he has many picaresque adventures, including being swindled in Kentucky by John Keats’s brother George and one “Jean-Babeuf Audubon,” whom we assume to be the creator of Birds of America, and who becomes Gould’s first mentor on his way to becoming a painter. Much later, in 1825, Gould is arrested in Bristol on what he claims is a false charge of forging Bank of England notes, and is sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land. In Hobart town he earns a living of sorts painting pub signs and the occasional portrait of a local worthy, but eventually falls foul of the authorities and receives a further sentence of fourteen years’ imprisonment on Sarah Island. Gould is, as he assures us, a thoroughly unreliable narrator, which may be the reason that his tone keeps slipping, rather like a face mask, to reveal the author’s face behind it. This is probably intentional, for even on the book’s jacket, in the place where we might expect to find a photograph of Richard Flanagan, there is instead a reproduction of a painting curiously identified as “Portrait of William Buelow Gould, A Landlord.”
The most prominent, though not necessarily the most convincing, character in the book is the commandant of the colony, in his marvelous dress uniforms and gold mask—yes, another mask—a mysterious, mad, cruel figure whose provenance is disputed and whose intent is uncertain. The story of his origins that Gould chooses to credit has it that he was a former convict who, being transported on a prison ship, was wrecked off the Australian coast, and seized the opportunity of taking on the identity of one Lieutenant Horace, who had drowned in the shipwreck. Arriving at Sarah Island, the false lieutenant quickly dispatched the colony’s then commandant by poisoning him, probably with the help of Lempriere, and set himself up in his place as a kind of Antipodean Mr. Kurtz. At first he was “a model of obsequiousness to his distant superiors” in London, sending them long reports of the reforms he was instituting, and the inventions he had introduced, including the “rocking chamber pot with its elliptical bottom that needed two hands to successfully operate, thereby rendering impossible the crime of Onan,” and getting in response only a dismissive silence.
After this official rebuff, the commandant went about transforming the colony into a great trading center. In this endeavor his first initiative was to trade the settlement’s entire stock of salted pork to a Nantucket whaling merchant for two old whalers, which he sent out with convict crews, selling their catch to buy more boats. He is a wonderfully inventive capitalist: “He formed those convicts he trusted into an elite guard, had them shoot dead half his soldiers, & by not informing the colonial authorities, kept receiving their wages as dead-pay.” Just as Lempriere is a cartoon of the Enlightenment progressive, so the commandant is Flanagan’s portrait of the colonial entrepreneur, making a fortune out of the blood of the natives and the sweat of his convicts. Flanagan’s inventiveness here is prodigious, as the demented commandant comes up with wilder and wilder but more and more lucrative moneymaking ventures:
For a horde of sulphur-crested cockatoos he had painted to resemble baby macaws & trained to recite melancholic verse in the manner of Pope & several songs of passion in the earthier argot of their convict trainers, he gained fourteen Brazilian caravels & seven cannons, which he promptly exchanged for a principality in Sarawak that a Levantine merchant had won in a game of tarok on his way south to the fabled kingdom of Sarah Island, the subsequent sale of which financed his palace & the new wharf.
In his impersonation of Lieutenant Horace, the commandant continues to receive the dead man’s mail, including frequent long letters from his adoring sister, Miss Anne. These letters, replete with society gossip and news of the latest marvels of technology appearing in Europe, are, Gould says, “made all the more remarkable by some personal association—high tea with George Stephenson’s sister who thought her idea of calling the locomotive ‘The Ebullient Thunderer’ excellent, a risqué evening watching bear baiting at the Five Courts where she was introduced to the poet John Keats,” etc., etc.
The commandant is at once enchanted with and tormented by these missives. “They distorted his perspective of the Old World, diminishing the everyday, the banal, the chicanery & the mediocrity of Europe; exaggerating the marvellous, the sublime, the astounding of that distant world half a year’s voyage away.” As Miss Anne’s claims to fame and accomplishment grow to gigantic proportions, “with the force of a profound revelation [the commandant] realised that his sister was inventing Europe,” and from there it is a short step for him to conceive that he might do the same, and institute on Sarah Island a Nova Europa vastly more magnificent, prosperous, and just than the decaying original. “Through a sea of convict blood he would later claim to have only ever spilt in furtherance of his people’s destiny, Miss Anne’s letters would henceforth be to him as a crazed lodestone by which he would navigate his strange journey, with us his unwilling passengers.”
Flanagan’s outrage at the thought of the real-life cruelties and injustices heaped upon the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land and Sarah Island frequently breaks through the fantastical fancies of his narrative with a cold, hard violence that is sometimes overdone but always appallingly direct and effective. Here is Billy Gould’s first glimpse of the prisoners of Sarah Island, that
unholy army of the persecuted—filthy little clawscrunts & half-starved wretches, their pus-filled eyes poking like buttercups out of scaled scabby faces, their misshapen backs hacked & harrowed out of any natural form by endless applications of the Lash; brawn-fallen, belly-pinched wrecks of men bent & broken long before their time, the one I thought the oldest only thirty-two years of age.
The placing of detail here—“the one I thought the oldest only thirty-two years of age”—communicates the horror far more effectively than many of Flanagan’s more empurpled passages manage to do. One sympathizes with the task he has set himself of communicating the frightfulness of life, so-called, on Sarah Island, and the need he feels to leaven the terrible things he has to tell with what Robert Dessaix called his “heartbreaking delicacy of feeling.” Required, in his early essays at painting, to mask the grim realities of colonial life with prettification, Billy Gould learns his “first great artistick lesson: colonial art is the comic knack of rendering the new as the old, the unknown as the known, the antipodean as the European, the contemptible as the respectable.” Or as he puts it more succinctly and parenthetically elsewhere, “(There’s always something new out of Australia).”
All the same, the considerable achievement of Gould’s Book of Fish —and I hope this review has communicated at least a sampling of the imaginative richness of the novel, both in content and style—is marred by a repeated tendency to hyperbole, a constant forcing of the language, so that again and again we have thrust before us such declarations as “There is only this life we know in all its wondrous dirt & filth & splendour,” although in fairness it should be said that it is the Commandant who is ruminating here. Also detectable is a sort of muscular distrust of mere writing, so that Gould is constantly striving to transcend both himself and the narrative, “so that I might explain how I once wanted to live as a rainbow of colour exploding, hard sun falling apart in soft rain, but had to be content instead with making grubby marks on cheap cartridge paper….” This is the kind of “fine writing” that we had hoped the various postcolonial New Worlds would repudiate in favor of such qualities as directness, humor, unselfconsciousness. Perhaps, given the baffling variousness of life Down Under, it was too much to ask.
September 26, 2002