Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gould's Book of Fish - Richard Flanagan

As I tried to pat out the book's flaring edge I noticed some of the words illuminated by the flames. I the firelight I read some sentences that made no sense whatsoever, ...................... Then the flame leapt up the page to my hand & the page, already loose, fell into the fire.... I then read what was now its beginning, a half torn page, the first legible words of which were:
"....for I am William Buelow Gould. sloe-souled, green-eyed, gap-toothed, shaggy haired & grizzle gutted, & I mean to paint pictures of fish & capture in them one more soul like mine.."


A fake painter and art dealer,Sid Hammet, living in present day Tasmania finds an old book written by a Tasmanian convict named William Buelow Gould. His interest in this was diminished as every one he approaches tells him this is fake and there is no such book. It is dubbed as another of those 'Australian literary fraud'. Fascinated by the book, he now starts rebuilding the story ( he claims it is from his memory as the book is lost) from the page 41 of the manuscript.

The story of Gould is based on the history of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on the West Coast of Tasmania. Convicted and sent to the isolated penal colony for reason not apparent - he commits few petty crimes in England ( My real crime was seeing the world for what it is & painting it as fish. For that reason alone, I was happy to sign a confession of guilt.) and in and out of the prison ( after multiple failed attempts to escape) , Gould resorts to drawing the images of fishes in the Tasmanian sea , on the advise from the Doctor for the Royal Society for survival.

During the drawing of fishes ( 12 of them in total), Gould narrates the story of the island and the prison camp to as it appears to him. The commander , who took charge of the island on a clever manipulation by erasing the details of his own past , under a new name , rule the land at his whims and fancies. On receipt of letters from his imaginary sister from Europe, he set upon changing the face of the small Tasmanian Island to match to those described by the letters. He trades the resources with the Japanes and Chinese for income , sets up a railway station and a circular railway line. Build an auditorium , seen never before.

The life of the convicts are as bad as anyone could imagine. Torture, murder, illness and various forms of abuse are a way of life. Those who attempt unsuccessful escapade are treated cruelly and murdered brutally. People are put in solitary cells where the water levels increase to the level of their neck during tides. Gould describes the initial scenes of his arrival at the prison..
Even before alighting, even before we saw anything up close, our noses were assailed by the effluvium of death. Death was in that heightened smell of raddled bodies & chancre-encrusted souls. Death arose in a miasma from gangrenous limbs & bloody rags of consumptive lungs. Death hid in the rancorous odour of beatings, in the new buildings already falling apart with the insidious damp that invaded everything, was seeping out of sphincters rotting from repeated rapes. Death was rising in the overripe smell of mud fermenting, enmities petrifying, waiting in wet brick walls leaning, in the steam of flesh sloughing with the cat falling, so many fetid exhalations of unheard screams, murders, mixed with the brine of a certain wordless horror; collectively those scents of fearful sweat that sour clothes & impregnate whole places & which are said to be impervious to the passage of time, a perfume of spilling blood which no amount of washing or admission was ever to rid me. And perhaps because everywhere was death, life has perversely never seemed so sweet as what it did when I first came to Sarah Isaland.
Gould escape this routine with the help of the island doctor Lempriere , a fanatic for natural sciences, agreeing to draw him the scientific illustrations of various fish of the island. He also extends his relative freedom by taking up paintings for the great Mah-Jong hall for the commandant , and silly landscapes for the Constable Pobjoy.

The fate takes a decisive turn for Gould after the mysterious death of Dr.Lempriere , for which Gould is accused and put in solitary cell. His adventures leads him to the central library, where the Danish Record Keeper Juergen Juergenson maintain all the historical data of the place and the convicts. This adventure was also short lived after being caught by the Dane, and the incidents that followed caused the death of the Dane, and his yet another escape.

This time he is determined to find Matt Brady , an escaped convict, who run a parallel kingdom in the island, often threatening the officials with his attacks. The records that carried by him might find some real use to all those convicts there if he manages to send them to England and only Brady can do that for him. The long walk across the plain reunite him with the aboriginal lady with whom he suspect to have had a baby. But the journey was tiresome and suffering from clold, hunger and nakedness fighting hallucinations, he end up caught by the search team for the final time.
Gould's world is not what we have seen in the history books and in the official records. Hence it is necessary for the authorities to deny them as fraus. It is gruesome and cruel beyond our imagination. Flanagan let Gould to invent the story as it pleases to him and let the narrative take the course of its own. Going back and forth, a glimpse here and another there. There is rich creativity and imagery here.
I was a vile piece of cell-shit.I smelt the breath of my fellows. I tasted the sour stench of their rotten lives. I was the stinking cockroach I was the filthy lice that didn't stop itching. I was Australia. I was dying before I was born. I was a rat eating its young. I was Mary Magdalene. I was Jesus. I was sinner. I was saint. I was flesh& flesh's appetite & flesh's union& death &love were all equally rank & equally beautiful in my eyes.

He also structure his tale very interestingly, without detailing much into his personal deeds. He also make a great spectacle of events of torture and death.

Despite all the hardship, Gould is not loosing his hope on the world. "Why,"he says , "when all the evidence of my life tells me that the world smells worse than the old Dane's bobbing corpse, why is it that I still can't help believing that the world is good & that without love I am nothing?"
This is not an easy book to read.The language is on a harder side, I had to refer the dictionary often. The events are jumbled and often are with no chronologic order. It is hard to distinguish between the real and the hallucinations as many of the characters are fake and are introduced by the re-teller, some connections are also lost. The last 100 odd pages are superb and make up for the lack of concentration in the middle pages.

Flanagan uses a language and style befitting to the narration. The changes from the early pages ( present day) to the story of Gould of the early 19th century is remarkable. A very good novel by this Australian writer.

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Gould's Book of Fish - A Novel in 12 Fish
Richard Flanagan
Grove Press
404 Pages
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Further Read: Complete Review , Guardian

1 comment:

windsweptfiction said...

Jayan,
Intriguing review. Sounds like I need to ad Flanagan to my very small Australian Authors section (curently only White, Malouf and Carey).

Nice blog.