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Con fishingGoulds Book of FishRichard FlanaganAtlantic Books 1699 pp404Prison islands are notoriously wordless places The authoritarian fear that language might get out of control has led to inmates being denied writing materials or even confined to silence Yet so often this repression of language has resulted eventually in its outpouringThink of Henri Charrires 600-page masterpiece Papillon written after his escape from Devils Island or of the millions of words Alexander Solzhenitsyn published after he emerged from the Gulag Archipelago or of the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer whose 10-year incarceration on Buru Island gave rise to his magnificent Buru QuartetWilliam Buelow Gould the narrator of Richard Flanagans remarkable third novel stands in this tradition of eloquent internees The real Gould was a forger and petty thief who in 1825 was condemned to serve 49 years on Sarah Island a penal colony off the coast of Van Diemens Land now Tasmania While imprisoned there he made 26 paintings of different fish These were gathered into a book which unlike Gould escaped Sarah Island and is kept in the State Library of TasmaniaIn Goulds Book of Fish Richard Flanagan a Tasmanian has given Gould a voice The book purports to be Goulds autobiography - what he calls the story of my compost heap of a heart - written as he waits for death in a seaside cell By ventriloquising a historical figure in this way Flanagan is able to approach issues such as the British genocide of Tasmanian aboriginals most recently dealt with by Matthew Kneale in his novel English Passengers the murderous rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment and above all the abominations of the British Empires penal systemOf the many extraordinary aspects of this novel the most immediately obvious is its appearance Each chapter is printed in a different colour designed to represent the various ad-hoc inks which Gould uses to inscribe his story red for blood sepia for cuttlefish ink purple from crushed sea-urchin shell
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