Gould's Book of Fish: a novel in twelve fish by Richard Flanagan

A shoal of red herrings beached on Van Diemen's Land

Eleanor Birne
Friday 14 June 2002 00:00

Richard Flanagan's latest novel, Gould's Book of Fish, tells old stories in unlikely places: the last pages are penned at the bottom of the ocean. Flanagan, a Tasmanian, has sought to tell the story of his homeland. His first novel, Death of a River Guide, is narrated by a drowning man as the story of the island is revealed to him. In his second, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, a woman discovers her and Tasmania's Eastern European inheritance.

In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan returns to the water to plunge us into Tasmania's colonial and penal history. Floating with him, like the corpse of Jorgen Jorgensen in the hero's prison cell, are the voices of, among others, Marquez, Borges, Sterne and Melville.

Flanagan's narrator, William Buelow Gould, is based on a historical figure who, in 1825, was condemned to serve 49 years on Sarah Island, a penal colony off the coast of what was then Van Diemen's Land. While imprisoned, he made watercolours of local fish which were collected into a book: 12 are reproduced here as plates that serve as chapter prefaces. The chapters are in turn named after them. Each is printed in a different colour ink, corresponding to the substances Gould uses to pen his account: red for kangaroo blood, blue for crushed stolen precious stone, brown for his own excrement and so on.

Billy Gould stands up to his neck in seawater, locked up in a cliff-side cage that floods with the tide. His jailer, Pobjoy, torments him; he also has to contend with the oppressive commandant. Also on the island is Twopenny Sal, an Aboriginal woman Gould falls in love with. None of these characters has much in the way of convincing personality; Gould himself is largely a blank. Unlike Peter Carey's Ned Kelly, Gould uses a language so self-consciously literary that there's little chance of getting close to him.

Character doesn't have much of a role in Gould's Book of Fish; neither do dialogue or plot. Billy can travel only in his head, as he recounts his own version of history while awaiting execution. The story aims to undercut the "official" history kept in the prison library: Gould's version, by contrast, is digressive and wayward. There are hints of Tristram Shandy, too, in the preoccupation with the dismembered, decaying body.

Through his insistence on "bends and diversions and sight-seeing", we learn about the forms of torture on Sarah Island. We witness the death of a Glaswegian machine breaker crushed by an instrument called the "cockchafer"; the prison surgeon is devoured by his giant pig, Castlereagh. There's no comedy in the barrels full of aboriginal heads.

Gould's Book of Fish gestures towards the pictorial in more than typographical ways, but in the end it's a game of words alone. After some 400 pages, the hero, now a fish, is able to say: "I am William Buelow Gould & my name is a song which will be sung." But this is too much a certainty, he decides, and the final lines turn again to babbling.

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