Chapter OneMy wonder upon discovering the Book of Fish remains with me yet, luminous as the phosphorescent marbling that seized my eyes that strange morning; glittering as those eerie swirls that coloured my mind and enchanted my soul-which there and then began the process of unravelling my heart and, worse still, my life into the poor, scraggy skein that is this story you are about to read.
What was it about that gentle radiance that would come to make me think I had lived the same life over and over, like some Hindu mystic forever trapped in the Great Wheel? that was to become my fate? that stole my character? that rendered my past and my future one and indivisible?
Was it that mesmeric shimmer spiralling from the unruly manuscript out of which seahorses and seadragons and stargazers were already swimming, bringing dazzling light to a dreary day not long born? Was it that sorry vanity of thought which made me think contained within me was all men and all fish and all things? Or was it something more prosaic-bad company and worse drink-which has led to the monstrous pass in which I now find myself?
Character and fate, two words, writes William Buelow Gould, for the same thing-one more matter about which he was, as ever, incisively wrong.
Dear, sweet, silly Billy Gould and his foolish tales of love, so much love that it is not possible now, and was not possible then, for him to continue. But I fear I am already digressing.
We-our histories, our souls-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.
Even my feverish pen cannot approach my rapture, an amazement so intense that it was as if the moment I opened the Book of Fish the rest of my world-the world!-had been cast into darkness and the only light that existed in the entire universe was that which shone out of those aged pages up into my astonished eyes.
I was without work, there being little enough of it in Tasmania then and even less now. Perhaps my mind was more susceptible to miracles than it might otherwise have been. Perhaps as a poor Portuguese peasant girl sees the Madonna because she doesn't wish to see anything else, I too longed to be blind to my own world. Perhaps if Tasmania had been a normal place where you had a proper job, spent hours in traffic in order to spend more hours in a normal crush of anxieties waiting to return to a normal confinement, and where no-one ever dreamt what it was like to be a seahorse, abnormal things like becoming a fish wouldn't happen to you.
I say perhaps, but frankly I am not sure.
Maybe this sort of thing goes on all the time in Berlin and Buenos Aires, and people are just too embarrassed to own up to it. Maybe the Madonna comes all the time to the New York projects and the high-rise horrors of Berlin and the western suburbs of Sydney, and everybody pretends she's not there and hopes she'll just go away soon and not embarrass them any further. Maybe the new Fatima is somewhere in the vast wastelands of the Revesby Workers' Club, a halo over the pokie screen that blinks 'BLACKJACK FEVER'.
Could it be that when all backs are turned, when all faces are focused on the pokie monitors, there is no-one left to witness the moment an old woman levitates as she fills in her Keno form? Maybe we have lost the ability, that sixth sense that allows us to see miracles and have visions and understand that we are something other, larger than what we have been told. Maybe evolution has been going on in reverse longer than I suspect, and we are already sad, dumb fish. Like I say, I am not sure, and the only people I trust, such as Mr Hung and the Conga, aren't sure either. To be honest, I have come to the conclusion that there is not much in this life that one can be sure about. Despite what may come to seem to you as mounting evidence to the contrary, I value truth, but as William Buelow Gould continued 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?
Once upon a time there was a man called Sid Hammet and he discovered he was not who he thought he was.
Once upon a time there were miracles, and the aforementioned Hammet believed he had been swept up in one. Until that day he had lived by his wits, which is another, kinder way of saying that his life was an ongoing act of disillusionment. After that day he was to suffer the cruel malaise of belief.
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.
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.
Copyright © 2001 Richard Flanagan
All right reserved.
Until that time I had devoted myself to buying old pieces of rotting furniture which I further distressed with every insult conceivable. While I belted the sorry cupboards with hammers to enhance the pathetic patina, as I relieved myself on the old metalwork to promote the putrid verdigris, yelling all manner of vile curses to make myself feel better, I would imagine that such pieces of furniture were the tourists who were their inevitable purchasers, buying what they mistakenly thought to be flotsam of the romantic past, rather than what they were, evidence of a rotten present.
My Great Aunt Maisie said it was a miracle that I had found any work, and I felt she would know, for had she not taken me at the age of seven to the North Hobart oval in the beautiful ruby light of late winter to miraculously assist North Hobart win the football semi-final? She sprinkled Lourdes holy water from a tiny bottle on the muddy sods of the ground. The Great John Devereaux was captain coach and I was wrapped in the Demons' red and blue scarf, like an Egyptian's mummified cat, with only big curious eyes visible. I ran out at three-quarter time to peek through a mighty forest of the players' Deepheat-aromaed thighs and hear the Great John Devereaux deliver a rousing speech.
North Hobart were down a dozen goals and I knew he would say something remarkable to his players, and the Great John Devereaux was not a man to disappoint his followers. 'Get your minds off the fucking sheilas,' he said. 'You, Ronnie, forget that Jody. As for you, Nobby, the sooner you get that Mary out of your mind, the better.' And so on. It was marvellous to hear all those girls' names and know they meant so much to such giants at three-quarter time. When they then won, kicking into the wind, I knew that love and water was a truly unbeatable combination.
But to return to my work with furniture, it was, as Rennie Conga (this, I hasten to say, lest some of her family read this and take umbrage, was not exactly her name, but no-one could ever remember her full Italian surname and it somehow seemed to fit her sinuous body and the close, dark clothes with which she chose to clad that serpentine form), my then probation officer, put it, a post with prospects, particularly when the cruise ships full of fat old Americans came by. With their protruding bellies, shorts, odd thin legs and odder big white shoes dotting the end of those oversize bodies, the Americans were endearing question marks of human beings.
I say endearing, but what I really mean to say is that they had money.
They also had their tastes, which were peculiar, but where commerce was concerned I was fond enough of them-and they of me. And for a time the Conga and I did a good line in old chairs which she had bought at an auction when yet one more Tasmanian headquarters of a government department had closed down. These I painted in several bright enamel paints, sanded back, lightly shredded with a vegetable grater, pissed on and passed off as Shaker furniture that had come out with whalers from Nantucket last century in, as we would say in answer to the question marks, their ceaseless search of the southern oceans for the great leviathans.
It was the story, really, that the tourists were buying, of the only type that they would ever buy-an American story, a happy, stirring tale of Us Finding Them Alive and Bringing Them Back Home-and for a time it was a good story. So much so that we ran out of stock and the Conga was forced to set up a production side to our venture, securing a deal with a newly arrived Vietnamese family, while I had the story neatly typed up along with some genuine authentication labels by a bogus organisation we called the Van Diemonian Antiquarian Association.
The Vietnamese's story (his name was Lai Phu Hung but the Conga, who believed in respect, always insisted on us calling him Mr Hung) was as interesting as any old whaling tale, his family's flight from Vietnam more perilous, their voyage in an overcrowded and derelict fishing junk to Australia more desperate, and they were better at scrimshaw to boot-a sideline, I should add, in which we also did a respectable trade. As the templates for his bone carving, Mr Hung used the woodcut illustrations out of an old Modern Library edition of Moby Dick.
But he and his family had no Melville, no Ishmael or Queequeg or Ahab on the quarterdeck, no romantic past, only their troubles and dreams like the rest of us, and it was all too dirtily, irredeemably human to be worth anything to the voracious question marks. To be fair to them, they were only after something that walled them off from the past and from people in general, not something that offered any connection that might prove painful or human.
They wanted stories, I came to realise, in which they were already imprisoned, not stories in which they appeared along with the storyteller, accomplices in escaping. They wanted you to say, 'Whalers', so they might reply, 'Moby Dick', and summon images from the mini-series of the same name; so you might then say, 'Antique', so they might reply, 'How much?'
Those sort of stories.
The type that pay.
Not like Mr Hung's tales, which no question marks ever wanted to hear, something of which Mr Hung seemed extraordinarily accepting, in part because his true ambition was not to be a steam-crane driver as he had been in Hai-Phong City, but a poet, a dream that allowed him to affect a Romantic resignation to the indifference of a callous world.
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 nineteenth-century French writing of whom, beyond their names-and sometimes not even that-I knew nothing.
Being in Hobart and not Hai-Phong City, the tourists cared not a jot for the likes of Mr Hung, and they certainly weren't going to give us any money for his tales about steam cranes, or his father's cranes that fished, or his poetry, or, for that matter, his thoughts on the connections between God and Gallic literature. And so instead Mr Hung dug out a small workshop beneath his old Zinc Company house in Lutana and set to work building fake antique chairs and carving ersatz whalebone to complement our more sordid fictions.
And why should Mr Hung or his family or the Conga or I have cared anyway?
The tourists had money and we needed it; they only asked in return to be lied to and deceived and told that single most important thing, that they were safe, that their sense of security-national, individual, spiritual-wasn't a bad joke being played on them by a bored and capricious destiny. To be told that there was no connection between then and now, that they didn't need to wear a black armband or have a bad conscience about their power and their wealth and everybody else's lack of it; to feel rotten that no-one could or would explain why the wealth of a few seemed so curiously dependent on the misery of the many. We kindly pretended that it was about buying and selling chairs, about them asking questions about price and heritage, and us replying in like manner.
But it wasn't about price and heritage, it wasn't about that at all.
The tourists had insistent, unspoken questions and we just had to answer as best we could, with forged furniture. They were really asking, 'Are we safe?' and we were really replying, 'No, but a barricade of useless goods may help block the view.' And because hubris is not just an ancient Greek word but a human sense so deep-seated we might better regard it as an unerring instinct, they were also wanting to know, 'If it is our fault, then will we suffer?' and we were really replying, 'Yes, and slowly, but a fake chair may make us both feel better about it.' I mean it was a living, and if it wasn't that good, nor was it all that bad, and while I would carry as many chairs as we could sell, I wasn't about to carry the weight of the world.
You might think such a venture would have met with the greatest approval, that inevitably it would have progressed, diversified, grown into a redemptive undertaking of global proportions and national merit. It may even have won export awards. Certainly in any city worth its sly salt-Sydney, say-such dreaming fraudulence would have been handsomely rewarded. But this, after all, was Hobart, where dreams remained a strictly private matter. Following the receipt of several lawyers' letters from local antique dealers and the attendant threat of legal proceedings, the arse fell out of our noble enterprise of offering solace to a decrepit empire's retired tribunes. The Conga felt compelled to go into eco-tourism consultancy with the Vietnamese furniture faker, and I went looking for some new lines.
Copyright © 2001 Richard Flanagan
All right reserved.
So it came to be on that winter's morning that was to prove fateful but at the time merely seemed freezing, I found myself in the wharf-side area of Salamanca. In an old sandstone warehouse I came upon what was still a junk shop, before that space too was appropriated by tourists and turned into yet another delicately overdone al-fresco restaurant.
Nestled behind some unfashionable 1940s blackwood wardrobes no tourist would ever be interested in receiving as absolution, I chanced to notice an old galvanised-iron meat safe which, with a child's desire to see into whatever is closed, I opened.
Inside I could only make out a heap of women's magazines of years gone by, a discovery dusty as it was disappointing. I was already closing the door when, beneath those fading rumours of love and tawdry tales of sad, lost princesses, my eye caught on some brittle cotton threads cheerily jutting out like Great Aunt Maisie's stubble, without shame and with a certain archaic vigour.