Lowly fish battle Tasmanian devil

Fish stories have a credibility problem. Even from the most trustworthy angler, they're slippery tales. When the teller is a forger, a liar, and a thief who admits that nothing he says can be believed, you're on guard. But when he confesses that he's also a fish, you're hooked.

Richard Flanagan has written a book that's THIS BIG, surely the slipperiest, most outrageous novel of the year. Who else would dare start with a 40-page preface that describes the story we're about to read as wondrous, luminous, and captivating? This is like setting off in the morning, promising to return for lunch with a dozen five-pound bass.

The narrator of this introduction, a con artist who makes "antique" furniture for American tourists, reports that when he first found "Gould's Book of Fish," its cover glowed with purple spots that spread up his arm. He notes that each chapter was written in different colored ink made from various body fluids and natural elements. "It was," he admits, "a dreadful hodgepodge" of paper, dried fish skin, sail cloth, and burlap, all of it swimming in a narrative "that never really started and never quite finished."

As he turns the pages feverishly, they grow damp, and when he's done, there's nothing left but a puddle on the table. Distraught over the loss and infected by "an unrequited love," he determines to rewrite "Gould's Book of Fish" himself.

The publisher, Grove/Atlantic, has obliged by printing the chapters in different colored inks just like the one that got away.

What follows this alternately lyrical and bombastic introduction is the weird and wild testimony of William Gould, a 19th-century convict on Sarah Island, the most notorious penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), then the most notorious penal system in the world. This is, after all, a place where hairy devils shriek through the brush.

Gould is a forger imprisoned in a cage built below the tide line. Between the floodings that threaten to drown him twice a day, he manages to paint pictures for his jailer, who accepts them in exchange for a moldy piece of fat or a swift kick to the head. Since prisoners are forbidden to keep records of any kind, this chaotic journal of his life written with sea urchin spikes must be kept carefully hidden. (The dead man floating in his cell serves as the perfect companion: quiet and uncritical.)

The story Gould tells of the land way down under is absolutely captivating. But be forewarned, it's also scatological and shockingly violent – a cringing nightmare inversion of the elegant British society that constructed this place.

The horror, the horror

Abandoned in a jungle far from civilization with thousands of criminals as their virtual slaves, the authorities on Sarah Island descend into the kind of madness that confirms Lord Acton's prediction about absolute power.

For a time, Gould is spared because his painting talent catches the eye of the colony's surgeon. Dr. Lempriere, a man almost as insane as his ravenous pet pig, believes that he can gain election to the Royal Society by producing an illustrated taxonomy of Tasmania's fish. This Dickensian character – speaks broken phrases only – CAPITAL LETTERS ALWAYS – sets Gould to work producing watercolors, but those paintings lead to a commission from the ultimate authority.

With the Commandant, Flanagan dives into the waters of Swift and Conrad and causes a wake of allegorical satire that washes through history, racism, politics, and technology. The Commandant is a character as absurd as he is frightening, a man wholly unhinged by isolation, hubris, and syphilis. Determined to re-create the wonders of Europe on his 1-mile-square island, he whispers orders to his minions behind a gold mask, selling off everything they need to survive in order to finance his fantasies. Even his most ridiculous schemes – such as building a lavish railroad station to attract trains from the mainland – shimmer with ominous terror.

When the Commandant orders giant scenes of world vistas for his train to pass, Gould is happy to paint them. But his first love remains those sad sea creatures that splash through his mind continually. As symbols, the strange, big-eyed fish of Tasmania catch the light of a full spectrum of meanings, drawing him down into an ocean of sympathy big enough to wash away the differences between jailer and criminal, Aborigine and white, oppressor and oppressed.

Beyond Tasmania

Flanagan's previous novel, "Death of a River Guide," was a gorgeous, mystical history of Tasmania that transpires during the four minutes it takes its narrator to drown. "Gould's Book of Fish" is just as wet, but it swims in deeper waters. It may not win him a larger audience, but it will earn him a more passionate one. "There is something irretrievably fishy about us all," says Gould, recalling that the early Christians used the same humble, enigmatic symbol. Approaching the colony's apocalyptic finish, he realizes that "to love is not safe," but what choice does this fisher of men have?

As the narrative loops back on itself in a series of mind-bending post-structural tricks, Flanagan develops a grander and more ghastly vision that leaps beyond his country's history toward the biggest questions that love and language can pose. The current is dangerously strong here, but the water is irresistible, and once again Flanagan is a death-defying guide.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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