Observer Review: Gould’s Book Of Fish By Richard Flanagan Essay, Research Paper
Con fishingGould’s Book of FishRichard FlanaganAtlantic Books ?16.99, pp404Prison islands are notoriously wordless places. The authoritarian fear that language might get out of control has led to inmates being denied writing materials or even confined to silence. Yet so often this repression of language has resulted eventually in its outpouring.Think of Henri Charrière’s 600-page masterpiece Papillon, written after his escape from Devil’s Island, or of the millions of words Alexander Solzhenitsyn published after he emerged from the Gulag Archipelago, or of the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose 10-year incarceration on Buru Island gave rise to his magnificent Buru Quartet.William Buelow Gould, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s remarkable third novel, stands in this tradition of eloquent internees. The real Gould was a forger and petty thief who, in 1825, was condemned to serve 49 years on Sarah Island, a penal colony off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). While imprisoned there, he made 26 paintings of different fish. These were gathered into a book which, unlike Gould, escaped Sarah Island and is kept in the State Library of Tasmania.In Gould’s Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian, has given Gould a voice. The book purports to be Gould’s autobiography – what he calls ‘the story of my compost heap of a heart’ – written as he waits for death in a seaside cell. By ventriloquising a historical figure in this way, Flanagan is able to approach issues such as the British genocide of Tasmanian aboriginals (most recently dealt with by Matthew Kneale in his novel English Passengers), the murderous rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment and, above all, the abominations of the British Empire’s penal system.Of the many extraordinary aspects of this novel, the most immediately obvious is its appearance. Each chapter is printed in a different colour, designed to represent the various ad-hoc inks which Gould uses to inscribe his story: red for blood, sepia for cuttlefish ink, purple from crushed sea-urchin shell and so on. The penultimate chapter is written in what Gould calls ‘the convict’s true ink, the poor man’s umber’ – shit.This unpredictability of appearance is matched by the book’s prose. Flanagan’s Gould is a highly unreliable narrator, who likes to change tack, swerve subject and digress without warning. Despite this, we gradually piece together how Gould ended up on Sarah Island.After kicking around London as a boy, where he enjoyed a ‘world of blue-gin riders & gaberlunzie men & pimps & swing-swang girls & their hanky thieves’, he headed for America, apprenticed himself to the master bird artist, John J Audubon, and learnt to paint.A brush with the law rebounded him to England, where in Bristol, home of that most famous of forgers, Thomas Chatterton, he was arrested and deported to Sarah Island: a place where ‘death arose in a miasma from gangrenous limbs & bloody rags of consumptive lungs… where death… was seeping out of sphincters rotting from repeated rapes’.On this atrocious island, Gould survives only by making himself indispensable. The obese and rambunctious prison surgeon, Tobias Lempriere, who, like Death in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the publican in The Waste Land, speaks only IN BLOCK CAPITALS, desperately wishes to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Science. He comes to believe that a scrupulous taxonomic study of Tasmanian marine life will get him elected and commissions Gould to paint the plates for his study.Thus, for a while at least, Gould is spared the corrective cruelties of Sarah Island: torture devices such as the Cockchafer, the Cradle, the Tube Gag or the Sleeping Cage, an iron pen ‘the length of a man and the height of a forearm’, into which convicts are locked to prevent them masturbating.In his passionate belief that everything can be forced, happily or unhappily, into a category, Lempriere stands in the novel for all that is invidious about nineteenth-century rationalism. He is thrilled by the power of the Enlightenment methodology whereby the world is broken ‘into a million classifiable elements’ and rebuilt again on systematic grounds.To Gould, however, such an ambition seems barren. If it were realised, thinks Gould, it would create a world ‘where science knew absolutely every species & phylum & genus, but no one knew love because it had disappeared along with the fish’. It would deplete the world of everything which makes it remarkable.Lempriere ends up being eaten by his gigantic pet pig, Castlereagh, and is thus transformed into ‘the largest pig turd on the planet… a steaming obelisk of crap’. His gigantic skull, we learn, eventually becomes a key exhibit in the emerging discipline of phrenology (now regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s most specious pseudo-sciences). Lempriere is thereby absorbed as a fallacy into the fallacious system of knowledge he so keenly wanted to be part of.Lempriere’s is a highly symbolic fate in a novel which is all about systems – judicial, alimentary, aesthetic, ethical – and what happens to people when they get put through such systems: how they are transformed. Flanagan seems to be saying that the world cannot and must not be run along utterly rigid lines, for its own geometries are not so inflexible. Human beings in particular are unclassifiable, and cannot be understood by type alone.Gould is Flanagan’s case-study, a man who reforges himself on a regular basis. ‘I am William Buelow Gould, not a small or mean man,’ he declares early on in the book. ‘I am not bound to any idea of who I will be. I am not contained between my toes & my turf but am infinite as sand… my soul is in a process of constant decomposition & reinvention.’Like Gould himself, the fish which he paints and admires represent all that frustrates the Enlightenment rage for order. Throughout the novel, fish are described slipping between elements, timescales, size and species. They exemplify a happy mobility ‘between’ categories, a refusal to be bounded by arbitrary partitions. ‘A fish is a slippery & three-dimensional monster’, muses Gould, ‘that exists in all manner of curves, whose colouring & surfaces & translucent fins suggest the very reason & riddle of life… a fish is a truth’. And truths, implies Flanagan, will not be easily be caught or captured – they are always slithering out of our grasp.In its persistent concern with transformations, melding and minglings, and their opposites – fixity, category and class – Gould’s Book of Fish is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, with their endless transmogrifications, their portmanteau creatures and their jumps of scale and size.Carroll is by no means the only author in the background of the novel, however. Like Borges, Flanagan is fascinated by the way in which, as he has put it in interview, ‘implicit in every book is the universe’. One of the ways he suggests this universality in Gould’s Book of Fish is by enfolding scores of other books into his own.Among the authors alluded to are Whitman, Rabelais, Yeats, Sterne, Smollett, Joyce, Marquez, Ned Kelly, Borges, Faulkner, Flaubert, Blake, Voltaire, Cervantes, Melville… the list goes on. Together, these many references suggest a vision of literature as existing in a vast mesh or net of affinities: an image, of course, which perfectly catches the other themes of Flanagan’s fishy tale.For the past 30 years or so, self-consciousness has been not just the effect but the theme of too many novels. Postmodernism, with its heightened sense of language’s untrustworthiness and its Nietzschean credo that there are no truths, only interpretations, has resulted in an excess of metafictionality; a glut of writing about writing. Character and emotional content have been neglected in favour of stale mille-feuille structures, mise-en-abime imagery, language games and all the other now-familiar devices of reflexivity.What makes Gould’s Book of Fish remarkable is its reconciliation of metafictionality with humanity. For while it is pervasively self-conscious, it is also a humanly troubled book: ferocious in its anger, grotesque, sexy, funny, violent, startlingly beautiful and, perhaps above all, heartbreakingly sad. Flanagan manages to make deep tenderness gleam even amid the deep darkness of Sarah Island.In his cell, dreaming of putting on an exhibition of his fish paintings, Gould imagines an audience gazing at his canvases. They would, he writes, ‘find themselves swimming in a strange ocean they could not recognise & they would feel a Great Sorrow about who they were & a Great Love for who they were not & it would be all mixed up & all clear at the same time, & they would never be able to explain any of it to anybody’. Much the same can be said of the effects of Flanagan’s novel. Like the fish and like Gould, it will not be easily categorised or paraphrased.Flanagan has written a book whose uniqueness mirrors its principal theme – the dangers of classification. I urge you to read it.