A Fish Tale

Richard Flanagan creates a lie as big as a continent

Richard Flanagan
Gould's Book of Fish
Grove/Atlantic

Sid Hammett knows fakes and he knows fictions. This ex-convict, the wholly unreliable narrator of Richard Flanagan's brilliant third novel, Gould's Book of Fish, makes his desultory living by palming off romanticized reproductions of Australia's convict heritage. He tells American tourists the stories that they want to hear of the old Tasmania and they buy the new chairs and armoires he has sanded to a fine 19th-century patina. So when Hammett finds a mysterious book--so powerful that it leaves glowing purple spots crawling up his arms and seems to shape-shift and grow and eventually melt away in front of him--he knows it is not a fake.

This artifact purports to be the "fantastickal" diary of one William Buelow Gould, convicted of forgery and sent to Tasmania in the early 1800s when it was known as Van Diemen's Land. Imprisoned in a seaside cell that nearly drowns him at high tide, Gould has written his memoir with whatever inky substance he could lay his hands on--crushed sea urchin, blood, and less savory bodily excretions. Commissioned by the penal colony's doctor to paint the aquatic life of the Antipodes, Gould winds his picaresque tale around a series of scientific illustrations.

Not another author photo by Marion Ettlinger: William Gould's "The Landlord"
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Not another author photo by Marion Ettlinger: William Gould's "The Landlord"

Like Nabokov's Pale Fire, Gould's story is at once utterly engrossing and totally unbelievable. Pigs and puffers exhibit signs of higher sentience. Sexual escapades involve everything from what Gould calls his "Flemish painter" to a perfume bottle in the shape of Voltaire's head. The most powerful characters, it turns out, are the ones who can turn such fiction into fact. There's the tyrannical Commandant, whose dreams of rebuilding the Old World on the New World's most barren outpost lead to a 200-yard railroad to nowhere and an epic mahjong hall. Or the secretary (and onetime king of Iceland) who keeps a meticulous record of what he thinks should have happened in the vicious penal colony, rather than what has. Or the marauding bushranger Matt Brady, whose reign of Tasmanian terror is built entirely on rumor and reputation.

The truest illustration, however, of the power of fiction is also the starkest: the convict Gould, emaciated, starving, eating his own jerkin to survive, dragging a sledge of penal-colony records through the dense virgin forest of Tasmania. The facts, he believes, will make it into history, where his own version of the truth--recorded in his colorful diary--won't stand a chance. (And the aboriginal people who have no written language at all--they will be annihilated in life and memory alike.)

The Gould's Book of Fish available on bookstore shelves is almost as fantastical as the one Sid Hammett finds. Flanagan campaigned to have it printed in a handful of different hues (to reflect Gould's makeshift inks) and with an illustration of a Tasmanian fish opening each chapter. And in the spirit of such publishing experiments, Flanagan's incredible tall tale is ultimately about the nature of autobiography, history, and narrative expression itself.

Although Flanagan takes the facts and his readers on a wild ride, he did take his inspiration from historical truth. It turns out that William Buelow Gould really did exist: He was indeed a convict, and he did paint and catalog the fish of Tasmania. The bushranger Matt Brady really did post a bounty on the governor's head. And the wicked tortures inflicted on the convicts of Sarah Island--the gag and the cradle and the flogging with the cat-o'-nine-tails dipped in sand--all that happened, too.

But that doesn't explain why Gould, marooned in the mid-19th Century, drops in unattributed quotes from Faulkner ("my mother is a fish"), Kafka ("A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us"), and no doubt countless others. Who's the actual author of this forger's tale? Gould's Book of Fish, as one skeptical professor says of Hammett's found diary, "seem[s] to concur with the known facts only long enough to enter with them into an argument."

The details of that argument, however, are beside the point. Flanagan's supersaturated prose will convince you that this is the true story of Australia's convict past--and of a lot of other things, besides. As Gould puts it, "If you can't trust a liar & a forger, a whore & an informer, a convicted murderer & a thief, you'll never understand this country."

 
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