Dec. 5, 2020
Now that I finished it, I can say that what comes first later comes last. Throughout the book, the narrator speaks of time being more circular than linear and demonstrates it when all is said and done.
My conclusion is at the end of the post.
The opening chapter’s skillful language drew me right in. I wanted to find out about the narrator’s mind-altering and enthusiastic reaction over a book on fish, which he plans to duly explain to us. It’s apparent we are in for something out of the ordinary.
Syd Barrett (one of many aliases for the narrator) is a huckster antique dealer who happens on a magical book on fish and becomes obsessed with it. After making serious inquiries of its origin and shopping it to the experts, he is discouraged by their disinterested reaction and ends up hanging around a bar where he loses the book when he steps away to take a leak. Immediately he compares the loss to the desertion of a lover: the one that ripped your heart out, leaving a contagion to find her again. Our narrator seems a sensible sort, however, and eventually attempts to overcome the loss by re-creating the book, using the pictures of a second similar book, which he happened upon but which has no prose.
The story has a sudden section shift, and there’s a new narrator. Now, apparently, the Fish book will be given its full history, as narrated by the author/artist William “Billy” Gould. He’s held prisoner in a coastal cave that fills with sea water to near ceiling level when the tide comes in. During the day when he’s not being abused by the guard, Gould draws and paints all the marine life around him. That much is sanctioned by his captors, but he is forbidden from writing text of any sort. He does so on the sly, using any colored substance including blood and octopus goo that functions as ink.
Various despots come in and out of Billy’s life on the island. He is only too glad to consent to do painting at their bidding, thereby avoiding the worst of prison life. By far the strangest character who orders him around is the Commandant, a shipwrecked pretender to his role as grand master of the island. His minions build a locomotive from shipped parts and lays out a railway that runs in one small circle, then commissions a grand MahJong Hall as the national palace, where Billy Gould paints the walls with the words from the Commandant’s unseen love and pen pal, Anne.
Eventually Billy’s painting and labors of mural art in both the train station and the Mah Jong Hall fall to ruin, as nature takes over during a lull in construction. An outside nation comes in to buy the guano deposits.
He goes back to painting fish, fretful of their future existence. Billy Gould is a visionary of the sterile and loveless world we are all heading into (though he sees it from the 19th century, and we see it likely too late).
Over the next hundred pages, we see Gould’s exciting discoveries of a secret room holding an enormous library of documentation, tirelessly hand-written and assembled by Jorgensen, the island clerk. Billy Gould eventually kills him by pushing over a bookcase. He is stuck in his cell with the decaying body until he escapes (thanks to robbing Jorgensen’s corpse of its money) the Sarah Island colony and journeys alone into the interior, pulling the island’s volumes of history in a sled behind him. So we see poor Gould bearing the brunt of history and all its human indignities. He retains hope that all their truths will fall into the right hands, and the scandals of the island revealed for posterity. He travels relentlessly to seek out the Tasmanian territory’s rebel liberator, Matt Brady.
In the novel’s most vivid scene, Gould is sleeping in the wilderness with aborigines, two of whom he knows from the past. The man is dying of wounds and disease, and the woman is “Two Penny Sal,” a striking mulatto who was once his (and many others’) courtesan. When the man, Tracker John, dies in his sleep in the middle of the night, the woman builds a bonfire fueled largely by Gould’s sled-full of history books. Much to Gould’s shock, the past and its pages of history he dragged cross-country are quickly destroyed. Sparks of dust and nothingness rise into the desert skies, while the woman and Gould strip naked, apply ochre paint, and dance like savages well into the night.
They separate, and Gould finds shelter in a hut, where (as it turns out) Brady once lived. He is disappointed on finding Brady’s journal, as to its shallow content and trifling concerns. It is a hollowing out of his soul, and he feels as if he has nothing left to live for.
I realize I have repeated too much of the storyline rather than commenting on it, so will not get into the ending which comes in one stunning revelation after another and is best left unsaid.
In sum, Richard Flanagan has written a masterpiece. Who would think that from an Aussie author from Tasmania? It’s a mix of all sorts of influences from Vonnegut to Sterne to Dickens to Pliny and DeQuincey and Voltaire and Fielding. It is as unrelentingly violent as the film “The Revenant’ but with a humorous filter. It is part Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in that reality ventures off into the impossible and fantastic. It is philosophy and comedy, tragedy and history.