Resisting Biopolitics through “Diaphanous Wonder”: Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2003)

Doro Wiese, Utrecht University


In Gould’s Book of Fish (2003), author Richard Flanagan manages to invent a format in which content and style account for historical events on Sarah Island, Tasmania in the 1820s, yet he does so in a manner that is not in the least objective, disinterested or fact-orientated. The perspective of Gould’s Book of Fish’s (Flanagan, 2003) first-person narrator is highly subjective, usually unreliable and always less than truthful. Flanagan (2003) thereby shows that literature can provide a form of knowledge that differs from historical truth, but without being its dialectical opposite. Literature can construct a non-referential narrative space in which experiences unfold that hardly unimaginable. Literature can show the urge and desire to understand historical events that are terrible to relate to. It can invent a story that can account for the consequences of a violent colonial system. Yet, above all, the novel stresses a desire to render stories of unspeakable horrors through what can be call the “becoming-fish” of its first-person narrator. This desire expresses a hyperbolic love of each and everyone, one which extends so far as to even include all the other wonders of this world in its account too. By depicting convicts and natives as loving and lovable persons, author Richard Flanagan (2003) refrains from reducing them to the colonial conditions in which they were caught up. He thereby offers a point of view that differs from Giorgio Agamben’s (1998) highly influential account of “bare life.” I will take this perspective, in which life and its conditions cannot be lumped together, as a point of departure from which to criticise Agamben’s (1998) transhistorical and transnational account of biopolitical determinations of life.

[Key words: Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish, Tasmania, colonization, convict-system, Agamben, bare life, aesthetics, resistance]

Gould’s Book of Fish, a novel by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan (2003), is set during the early days of Britain’s colonisation of Tasmania in the 1820s and used the unreliable narrative voice of inmate William Buelow Gould, a prisoner who lived in the institution from 1829-33. Though based on documented historical occurrences and persons, the narrative relies heavily on metafictional devices to comment on its own constructed nature and uses the voice of the main character to express a distinct view of historical events. Specifically, the first-person narrative voice of the protagonist is used to portray historical events in a distorted and idiosyncratic manner, speaking to and reflecting the distortions and biopolitical control imposed upon on people by brutal and genocidal colonial systems, as occurred in Tasmania, and where the experiences of those under that brutality have been silenced. This novel manifests the fundamental need to tell the story that has been untold or silenced. In the novel this need is manifested in Gould’s desire to tell the story of a fish – an animal that is, by human standards, voiceless.

The novel’s narrator undergoes significant perspective transformations which allow him to be affected by a hyperbolic, generalized love for everyone and everything in the whole world, which can be identified with Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) concept of “becomings”. These becomings are important to analyse because the love that they bring about is not only central to the novel’s vision of life, it also is central to the important shift of perspective presented by the novel. This love will also be the counterpoint for examining Agamben’s (1998) highly influential notion of ‘bare life,’ which was introduced and expounded upon in his work Homo Sacer.

  1. Literary Style versus Biopolitical Capture

Gould’s Book of Fish (Flanagan, 2003) is set in the first prison settlement in Tasmania, the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, built in 1822 on a small island in the Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast. Sarah Island, a place of extremely harsh geographic and social conditions (see Maxwell-Steward, 2008), was quickly regarded as one of the harshest locations in the English-speaking world (Hughes, 1987, p. 372). Convicts were worked for twelve to sixteen hours daily, with inadequate food or housing, and corporal punishment was not uncommon (Hughes, 1987). Prison records report 33,723 lashes during public floggings between 1822 and 1826 (Hughes 1987, p. 377). Just as Gould’s Book of Fish describes the conditions in the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station as they appear according to historical records, the first-person narrator is superimposed onto the convict-painter William Buelow Gould (1801-53), imprisoned for forgery, who has been historically recognized for his supurb naturalistic paintings of the area’s flora and fauna (see Allport, 1931; Clune and Stephensen, 1962; Pretyman, 1970). In both the novel and historical record, the protagonist was assigned to assist the colonial surgeon Dr James Scott on Sarah Island, who commissioned him to paint the depictions of local fish, plants, and birds for which he is now known. The novel Gould’s Book of Fish (Flanagan, 2003) takes the form of the convict-painter’s journal, and though fictional, the fish-drawings included in the book are those of Gould, used with permission, and are said to have been painted from memory. The novel weaves a fictitious and embellished storyline based on Gould’s prison time through historical information based on known persons and events on Sarah Island during that time.

Though based on historical events and characters, the use of a non-linear chronology and frequently interrupted storyline, metafictional literary devices, and fantastic and parodic interventions avoids any positivistic renderings of history, and allows the novel, according to various critics, to counter enlightenment thought’s teleological narrative of the “progress of civilization” (see Bogue, 2010; Jones, 2008; Shipway, 2003; Weir, 2005). Gould’s narration depicts the traumatic events transpiring in the Tasmanian penal colony (and in the story itself) through a distorted lens, in this way reflecting the distortions imposed upon people by the brutal and genocidal colonial system in Tasmania, but also testifies to the capacity of people, even under those circumstances, to maintain affective relationships. I will argue that with this novel, Flanagan (2003) shows us how literature can be used as a space to examine (un)imaginable experiences, to aid in comprehending historical events so horrible as to seem incomprehensible, and to address the need for the expression of silent and silenced voices. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Gould’s longing to tell the story of the (voiceless) fish manifests this desire, through a process which is inherently tied to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming. I will contrast Flanagan’s use of literary, stylistic and narrative devices to create an empowering depiction of convicts and indigenous persons in Gould’s Book of Fish, with Agamben’s failure, in Homo Sacer (1998), to similarly invest in the creation of an analysis in which human beings are not dehumanized.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987), in their concept of becoming, have drawn from ideas of Spinoza, especially the importance he places on the composition of relations and encounters, and the effects of those encounters, rather than on the essential traits of a being. Human beings’ understanding of the encounters with external ideas or entities tends to be limited to how the encounter is affecting us: “only our body in its own relation, and our mind in its own relation” (Spinoza qtd. in Deleuze, 1988, p. 19). However, if we are able to go beyond this initial reaction, our minds and bodies, and the bodies and minds of others, are capable of surpassing “the consciousness that we have of it” (Deleuze, 1988, p.19). Though becoming lacks a form through which it can convey its meaning, Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 253) understand it as an interplay of specific, unique moments, happenings, intensities and affectivities. Becoming, therefore, is a process that expresses the capacity of life to go beyond meaning and to create a formulation for the potentiality of joy and possibly even a “love of the whole world” (Lawlor, 2008, p. 173).

In the following analysis I focus on Gould’s becoming-fish, which through its hyperbolic affect of love provides readers with one most consequential and fundamental perspective shifts: that the understanding of a life cannot be limited to an understanding of its circumstances, its suffering, or the brutality imposed upon it, because it has its own subjectivities beyond those bounds that are able to create more and different relations, desires, and action. This understanding of life will be the counterpoint upon which I base my criticism of Agamben’s (1998) transhistorical and transnational analysis of the biopolitical determinations of life in Homo Sacer. I will show how Flanagan’s sets out a vision in which the lives of those historically silenced, subjugated and colonized are given value, character and humanity, and how this vision might guide readers towards the creation of an accountability with the past and a responsibility to the future…Access Full Text of the Article

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