WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! This is a discussion amongst participants of ReadLiterature.Com's reading group. Since they have all read the book, they discuss it freely - including its twists, turns, and the ending. If you have also read the book, you might enjoy the comments of other readers. But if you haven't and intend to do so, then the following discussion might ruin it for you.
Posted by Lale on 12/9/2004, 10:29:53
Last night I couldn't sleep and I read whatever I could find on Gould's Book of Fish and about Flanagan. The link above has one of the most interesting articles about the author on the net.
After the tremendously witty first part, the book became a difficult read. I am finding it very hard to follow the plot. Anyone else suffering from this?
I found my "Literary Review" from June 2002, I had a vague recollection of having read the book's review in there. I found it. (Never under estimate the power of insomnia.) Geordie Greig says in his review:
Brimming with enough literary echoes and allusions to make an Oxbridge professor dizzy, it pours forth in an unstoppable torret of linguistic pyrotechnics, celebrating Joyce, Conrad, Hemingway, Rabelais, Sterne, Melville and Dickens. It is a novel you need to read at least twice, first to make sure that the author has not lost the plot, and a second time to make sure the reader hasn't. Nothing on the surface is quite as it seems in this murky, quirky, narrative in which still waters are never really still and in which the meaning is meant to run extremely deep. History, philosophy, torture, pain, love, lust, imperialism and perversion all bubble up, coming together in a fictional form that is difficult to categorise: part memoir, part meditation, it is also a meandering story of malevolence, madness and magnificent survival.
Posted by Lale on 14/9/2004, 15:02:16
In the year 1822 A Penal Settlement was formed on the N.W. Coast of Van Diemans Land for men convicted a Second time in the Colony. Macquarie harbour is 37 miles Long and from 5 to 9 Broad. The Settlement is upon an Island about 2 mile in Circumference, and 25 miles from the heads or Entrance. One mile from it is Small Island which is a perpendicular Rock fifty feet above the level of the sea about 40 years Long and 8 Wide - rude stairs cut in cliffs is the only Road to a Truly wretched Barracks Built with Boards and Shingles into which 70 men were often confined in too Crowded a state as to scarcely able to lay down on their sides - to lay on the Back was out of the Question.
Sourced: "Memoranda by Convict Davis" (probably Thomas Brain or Bryan), Norfolk Island 1843
Sheltered in Macquarie Harbour, off the remote western coast of Tasmania, Sarah Island was once a feared penal settlement, where convicts laboured in rainforest, felling Huon pines under extremes conditions.
In January 1822 a ship arrived in Macquarie Harbour with 14 convicts, 16 soldiers and their families. They established a convict station on Sarah Island. Nearby Grummet Island was used to separate the female convicts from the male convicts, with the convicts living in cold, harsh conditions. The island did not have a regular water supply, with water being shipped 6 km from Phillips Island each day.
About 1826, the governor realised that Sarah Island was unsatisfactory and by 1834 the settlement had been abandoned and a new penal settlement had been established at Port Arthur. Today, all that remains on Sarah Island are the convict ruins, that reveal a chilling insight into the cruelties of convict life.
Posted by Lale on 14/9/2004, 15:14:46
Convict narratives: this one is almost like reading Billy Gould's story:
Posted by Stephen on 20/9/2004
Much of Lale's problem with Gould relates to the style contained in "magical realism" - another of those genre trap phrases we have to endure. The difference is that in Gould, it's his delusions resulting from prison life. In de Bernieres, it's a touch of "native" magic derived from the Amazonian forest peoples. I prefer Flanagan's since there's firmer grounds for its use and it isn't fundamental in resolving plot problems.
Posted by Lale on 20/9/2004, 10:03:22
Yes, I had difficulty following the plot. On page 101, I skipped 208 pages and went to page 309 and finished the book from there. Now, I will read the pages in between. I did such a thing for the first time in my life but I think it helped.
The book is not for the faint hearted. The subject matter is not pleasant. Luckily, there are comic reliefs by Flanagan venomous satire.
Posted by Lale on 22/9/2004, 8:49:53
Cool excerpts from Gould's Book of Fish:
For Mr. Hung's religion was literature, literally. He belonged to the Cao Dai, a Buddhist sect that regarded Victor Hugo as a god. In addition to worshipping the deity's novels, Mr. Hung seemed knowledgeable about (and intimated a certain spiritual communion with) several other greats of the nineteenth-century French writing of whom, beyond their names --and sometimes not even that -- I knew nothing.
... . And certainly on such a day no-one else bothered to venture into a dark, unheated Salamanca junk shop. Even the owner stayed huddled over a small bar radiator at the far end of his domain, his back turned to me, surreptitiously slipping off that vile anthem of contemporary retailing, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and putting on the comforting low rubato of the races, a golden slipper of sound.
When I managed to persuade the museum to run tests on the parchment and inks and paints, carbon date and even CAT scan the book page by page, they admitted all the materials and techniques seemed authentic to the period. Yet the story discredited itself so completely that, rather than agreeing to attest to the book as a genuine work of great historical interest, the museum's experts instead congratulated me on the quality of my forgery and wished me all the best in my continuing work in tourism.
'It need not be added,' he added, sly smile almost obscured by the limp quiff leaning over his face like a drunk about to vomit, 'that if you were to publish it as a novel, the inevitable might happen: it could win literary prizes.'
The Book of Fish may have had its shortcomings -- even if i wasn't willing to admit to them -- but it had never struck me as being sufficiently dull-witted and pompous to be mistaken for national literature.
Given that Doctor Bundy refused to countenance the fact of my illness, it seemed not unreasonable for me to refuse to countenance the worth of his remedies.
... . As though they were the truth! As though history & the written word were friends, rather than adversaries!
...definitions belong to the definer, not the defined...
Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 28/9/2004, 22:18:29
Two additions to cool excerpts from Gould's Book of Fish:
" Ever since the poorhouse priest told me it was only God's love that made him wish to rub my feet so, I have been of the opinion that even if you accept that something is God's Will it doesn't mean you have to agree with it. You can, for example, accept that it is God's Will that it is raining, but that doesn't mean you continue standing in the rain".
"Men's lives are not progressions, as conventionally rendered in history paintings, nor are they a series of facts that may be enumerated & in their proper order understood. Rather they are a series of transformations, some immediate & shocking, some so slow as to be imperceptible, yet so complete & horrifying that at the end of his life a man may search his memory in vain for a moment of correspondence between his self in his dotage & him in his youth".
Posted by the bunyip on 7/10/2004, 13:05:44
It seems i'm remiss in starting the commentary on Flanagan. I apologise for that, but i've been busy finding out who we truly are. Flanagan summed it up beautifully in one line on p. 340. "Long time before. . . you was us."
Honesty demands i admit to some hesitation in recommending this book. It is, of course, filled with allusions to things Australian. Some of these may slip by the unintiated. My own long term reading on Oz left me well-prepared for it. I read it again [the third time!] before suggesting it.
Flanagan has almost done what i hoped to live to be 500 to accomplish - a synopsis of the horrors foisted on the world by the British Empire. Gould's account is but one element in that grand scenario, but easily the best.
Gould is a man in torment - abused and scorned by his society. Prison life, particularly that prison, could lead to intense consideration of self-worth, even actual identity. Victorian Britain, almost daily confronting a dynamic society torn between the rise of world commerce and industrialism and the displacement and degradation of its own people, struggled to understand what was happening around them. They failed miserably, and Gould is a representative of that failure.
Flanagan has captured so many aspects of this struggle so effectively that there isn't praise enough to award him. It's a history in literary form encompassing what we all need to learn - "Long before, . . . you was us".
Posted by Lale on 7/10/2004, 13:43:35
I "appreciated" this book.
I see its quality in terms of subject matter and wit.
But it didn't become one of my favorite books. I found it very hard to read. I skipped parts in the middle. I went back and reread some other parts. The plot was very difficult to follow and, if you consider the gruesomeness of the details, I wasn't sure if it was worth the effort.
The first part of the story, the Sid Hammet narration, was wonderful. I thought "hey, this is good stuff, I am in for a treat", but then once we got to Gould's story ... I lost the plot and I was not very enthusiastic to search for it.
Earlier, I typed up some of my favourite quotes from the book, brilliant stuff. But that wasn't enough for me to place this book in any of my "top ten" lists. I feel terrible about this. I am sorry. It just wasn't the kind of story telling I enjoy.
I like historic literature as well. I looked the background up on the internet and read, with interest, whatever I could find. I wish the author had a different way of telling it, though. Maybe less fantasy, more straightforward. I don't know.
Just an aside: The use of "&" annoyed me to no end. I just couldn't get used to it.
Only a madman would open it . . ., November 25, 2002
All the stars in Amazon's firmament aren't sufficient reward for this masterpiece. Flanagan uses nested metaphors like the famous Russian dolls, each exposing a new level of the same theme. Here the theme is the perception of the written word. Which of the stories told here is the valid one? Are all of them real, or all false? Lest this sound confusing, reader, take heart. Flanagan is a master storyteller and all he asks of you is a bit of patience while he unravels the life of a man beset by forces of breathtaking scope. After all, he is presenting you with the world of the British Empire.
Will a valid history of that Empire ever be written? Flanagan makes no such claim. He views its immensity from a tiny salient through the eyes of one its outcasts. William Buelow Gould is a man whose perception becomes increasingly distorted in a place that could break the strongest mind. Macquarie Harbour was a dumping ground for "hard case" convicts. Here, a thirty-two year old appears decrepit. Here, all were "cobbers and dobbers" - men were mates ranged against prison authority but turning traitor against each other ["dobbing in"] when survival was the issue. Gould, an artist-forger, seems spared the worst effects of The System when he's posted to the colony's surgeon to produce watercolours of the local marine life. In this role, Flanagan takes us on a tour of "scientifick" thought of the time and its impact on people on the far reaches of the Empire - which spans the planet. Phrenology, evolution, religion of the time come to light from his skilled prose.
Gould, ever a pawn on The System's board, is taken from the surgeon to embark on a fresh enterprise. The prison Commandant has a commission for him. Gould's new project reflects the Commandant's ambitions for the colony, but we witness a new attitude in Gould as the story develops. What truly happened in this place bracketed by screaming winds and a mountain wilderness that inhibited dreams of escape? Flanagan makes Gould the only valid witness to events - at least the only one leaving a record. Can we, however, trust the words of someone recording so many irrational acts? Gould assures us: "if you can't trust a liar & a forger, a whore & an informer, a convicted murderer & a thief, you'll never understand this country." To Flanagan, that statement sums up the dilemma of Australia. Whose account of history are we to believe?
Gould is ultimately convicted of a bizarre murder and placed in a cell inundated by each day's tide. Using his marine paintings he begins the chronicle of his life in the colony. His Book of Fish, however, ranges far beyond simply a journal of events illustrated with symbolic watercolours. Flanagan assaults all written accounts as deceptive, even questioning the validity of the most mundane of books - a prison registry. The registry becomes a pivot around which Flanagan twists a skein of questions of human values. More than simply historical "truth" is under scrutiny here. What price are we prepared to pay in resolving "scientifick" issues? How can we categorize our fellow humans when we know, as Aborigine Twopenny Sal tells Gould, "Long time before, you were us." Human ancestry lies in Africa, not London, Sydney or even Ottawa. The questions haunt Gould throughout the book, and Flanagan wants them to haunt you a bit, as well. Read him and ponder them.
Posted by moana on 7/10/2004, 21:52:52
As per the scientific stuff, I love the fact that Gould is made to paint these scientific pictures of fish. Whenever I can, I love looking at old science books that have paintings instead of photographs. Harvard had a collection of glass flowers that are amazingly accurate. Look at some of these pictures:
and I don't think you could ever tell that they were fake.
To me that's a terrifically symbolic piece of Gould's Book of Fish - the artistry gone into the piece of fiction is much better than perfect accuracy.
Posted by Hanh on 8/10/2004, 0:53:11
This book is a gem. I love every page of it. It is among the few whose last page pulls me back to the first for an immediate second round. It deserves more discussion than I spare right now, before the weekend, so to quote Ahhnold: I'll be back.
Bunyip, your synopsis right on. So much there I stumble over my thoughts, they want to spill out helter skelter. I must rein them into coherent thoughts before they become words.
It is definitively Australian, this book, if there is such a thing, and if I may be to bold as to claim it to be that, with unauthorized authority.
5-stars. I shall return to justify myself.
Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 8/10/2004, 14:26:58
Hmmmm. I did like the book. I won't reread it to search for clues to its many allusions. Some day, when I have a lot of money, I will go to Sarah's Island and take a look at the place where William Beulow Gould lived so many a terrible day. I will imagine him in his sea-cell, drenched every day by the tide. Now can anyone explain to me what the diverse voices were? I keep reading reviews where knowledgeable people say that the narrator impersonates different people to tell the story. I did not get that. All along I thought it was just old Billy Gould telling his story, gory, sordid, dirty, sad and possibly deserved.
As for the British Empire, I may be an outcast here, and I don't dream of any Arcadia, but I'm sure many people miss them in view of what replaced it.
Posted by Hanh on 10/10/2004, 2:44:15
Gould's Book of Fish captures me. It is the same feeling the first time I saw Guernica -- a phantasmagoric, manic, furious unleashing of I-don't-know-what, but I love it just the same.
At first, I didn't know how to file the details in an orderly manner. Then, like Guernica, I stopped trying to fit it into a mold of a logical story, and then order came out of the chaos.
Strangely enough, this experience was exactly described in the book itself, as if it were a guide to getting the story.
"The sum of such chaos was that I seemed to be reading a book that never really started and never quite finished. It was like looking into a charming kaleidoscope of changing views: a peculiar, sometimes frustrating, sometimes entracing affair, but not at all the sort of open-and-shut thing a good book should be."
For me, this story is Guernica in text, Heart of Darkness wrapped in a tragi-comic parable. Words do not tell the literal tale but paint instead a surreal picture out of which the story emerges.
Gould/Sid/Capois Death/the Surgeon/Jorgen Jorgensen/Capois Death/PobJoy, et. al, is Man.
The characters in the book are one and the same because collectively, they are "Humanity" -- one and the same. We too are they. The Story of Man is also the story of us. If we go back far enough, there is blood on all our hands. We live on land taken by someone in the past with terror and blood. We have all touched products made by exploited hands.
Hence Gould's story is Sid's story, is Pobjoy's story, is the Commandant's story, is our story.
"We -- our histories, our soul -- are, I have since come to believe in consequence of his stinking fish, in a process of constant decomposition and reinvention, and this book, I was to discover, was the story of my compost heap of a heart."
Each of the character is Man trying to survive, striving for greatness, going mad with power, exploiting for gain, loving, grasping, dying. In toto, they tell the story of us, caught in the net of Destiny -- a destiny of our own making.
"For out there, only just beyond our vision, the net is waiting for us all, ever ready to trap & then rise with us tangled within, fins flailing, bodies futilely thrashing, heading to who knows what chaotic destiny."
The Book of Fish is the History of Man. In that book, there are nice, well-drawn fish and there are stories told in blood and feces. What happened at Sarah Island was a stinking story told in blood and feces, like what happened to the Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Indians of the Americas.
Over time, we forget the stinking fish stories ...
"Once upon a time terrible things happened, but it was long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us."
... often because somehow it came to pass that 2 stories emerge out of the soup of history. There are 2 Books of Fish -- one clean and edited containing only nice fish pictures and kept in the library, the other with stinking fish and feces, hidden away in a dark forgotten corner.
Which one is true? The clean one that appears proper and sane, or the one where the author is obviously deranged?
"This bellicose book, it was put to me, was the insignificant if somewhat curious product of a particularly deranged mind of long ago."
Reading through satinized history, the author (Man) would appear competent and sane. The unedited version, on the other hand, reveals a madness in Man (the author of History) difficult to accept.
But how do we know which book is true?
"As William Buelow Gould continue to ask of his fish long after they were dead from his endless futile queries, where is truth to be found?
As for me, they have taken the book and everything away now, and what are books anyway but unreliable fairy tales?"
Truth is found in the uncomfortable shedding of illusions ...
"After that day he was to suffer the cruel malaise of belief."
... and the acceptance of the dirty fish stories of Man as your own.
"Once upon a time there was a man called Sid Hammet who saw reflected in the glow of a strange book of fish his story"
The story is bewilderingly ambitious, telling in one delirious pass the real story of: Gould the inmate, Sarah Island the prison, the Australia the colony, Britain the empire, Man the species, without telling anything real about them in particular. It is a kaleidoscope, diaphanously coherent in its anarchy. I love it.
Posted by Hanh on 10/10/2004, 3:51:20
: Hence Gould's story is Sid's story, is Pobjoy's story,
: is the Commandant's story, is our story.
To understand human frailty, one must love humanity.
"to make a book, even one so inadequate as this wretched copy you now read, is to learn that the only appropriate feeling to those who live within its pages is love."
Posted by Lale
I love your review Hanh. Comparing Gould's Book of Fish to Guernica is brilliant.
It is not "not now or here or us" but it is always now and here and us.
Posted by Hanh on 10/10/2004, 2:49:44
This is a non-sequitur noted because I find it extraordinarily clever.
First chapter, page 4: "Once upon a time there was a man called Sid Hammet who saw reflected in the glow of a strange book of fish his story, which began as a fairy tale and ended as a nursery rhyme, riding a cock-horse to Banbury Cross."
Last Chapter, last sentence: "I am William Buelow Gould & my name is a song which will be sung, click-clack -- rat-a-tat-a-tat, a penny a painting, silly Billy Gould riding a seahorse to Banbury Cross..."
What a beautiful connection of beginning and end.
Posted by LadyPurple on 13/10/2004, 6:46:06
: Eh, where IS everybody? Bunyip, our discussion leader,
: conspicuously absent after that first tantalizing post.
I was wondering the same thing! Anyway, as I could not really get into Gould's book I want to contribute a couple of reflections and questions:
Why did I not get into it? First, it had to do with the language that I could not find appealing. As a non-English native speaker, I probably don't appreciate the nuances... If I have to struggle to get into the flow of a book I ask myself why do I bother? There are many more books to read that have more meaning to me.
Also, I have a problem with the theme of the book - prison literature of any kind is not my priority. Having worked for more than a decade with Amnesty International, I am reluctant to read prisoners' reflections for fun and entertainment.
So, why did those who did read Gould's Book of Fish, and liked it, like it? I did not get a clear sense of your various reasons. The concept might be intriguing but does it really have meaning to you all?
Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 13/10/2004, 15:19:08
Now, back to "Gould's book of fish": I liked both Stephen's and Hahn's reviews and I can agree with them. The book can definitely be read as a great fresco of humanity and it is perfectly OK to look at it from the point of view of the horrors, insanity, megalomania, sordidness and all the rest that we humans have inflicted on us humans. And Flanagan can write, he is witty, cultivated and even easy to read. I never got bored, but somehow I simply feel something is lacking in the book. Something that would make it eternal. Is it the lack of any redeeming traits about humans in it? I don't know.
Posted by Lale on 13/10/2004, 17:44:49
: in the book. Something that would make it eternal. Is
: it the lack of any redeeming traits about humans in it?
: I don't know.
Could be. I also look for a redeeming character.
Posted by the bunyip on 16/10/2004, 10:28:20
I had hoped to see a consensus of views on Flanagan before commenting again. Then everybody slipped past me.
How enduring is "Gould"? Only time will tell that. But a significant aspect is what i referred to in my first posting: trying to encompass the history of the British Empire in one volume is a monumental task.
The mainstream critics have coined a new genre name [what would we do without critics to point the way for us?!], "magical realism". The term refers to books that find "magical ways" to get around difficult situations. In this case the difficulty lies in compressing the impact and ironies of empire into few enough pages to read comfortably. To accomplish this, Flanagan created a string of visions and circumstance instead of simply fitting his characters into an historical sequence. It's a necessary technique, although not the only one available. It is, BTW, the genre in which de Bernieres is usually placed.
Language: I can sympathise with those who had difficulty with language in "Gould". "Convict Cant" is a frequent tool in Australian literature, especially these days. The modern technique is a reaction to the sophistry of "middle class" English [such as Dickens used] to smooth over realities. Australia's "strine" slang form has helped keep that patois alive. The Poms have smothered it and the Yanks never had one. It is easy for me, of course, with the readings in Australia i've under my hat. I would urge all of you who want to understand the realities of that time and place to try the task again. Reading in isolation would likely help.
Anyone who hasn't read this book, should do so.
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