Fiskadoro is a novel by American writer Denis Johnson. The premise of the story is that a nuclear catastrophe decimated most of the world except for the Florida Keys and Cuba. In these locales, a small group of survivors from various backgrounds try to rebuild society but are stuck in the past. The premise itself is not original, even in 1985, when the novel was published, but Johnson's trademark prose style made the narrative flow decently, and keeps the readers captivated.
The present-day scenes in the story are quite lacking in terms of piquing interest, especially considering the circumstances, and the general consensus among literary critics and readers is that the flashback scenes are more interesting. In particular, the backstory or memories of Mr. Cheung and his grandmother frame the "new" post-apocalypse America as a melting pot of cultures. Florida Keys became the new nation where Americans of various ethnic backgrounds try to form the American dream as envisioned by the forefathers.
In this sense, this group of people are trying to convert dystopia into a utopia. The vision for the future-America are guided, interestingly, by their memories of their original homeland. In the case, of Mr. Cheung's grandmother, her haunting past in Vietnam is tied to how she and her grandson interpret the current events. Another interesting element in the story—which emphasizes the different cultural backgrounds of the survivors—is the mixture of languages.
It is as if Johnson was alluding to the post-Babel era in the Bible, where tribes who spoke different languages failed in making a tower to reach the heavens. Through this collage of languages and individual experiences, the survivors in Florida and Cuba try form the new world as a sort of singular tapestry.
Another symbolic element in the story—although this was not explicitly stated in the novel—is the fact that Florida is where the oldest established city in America is located (St. Augustine), and Cuba is in the Atlantic, where theorists believe the fantastical Atlantis was located. The survivors are inherently the pioneers of the new world.
Since the first explosions of the atomic bomb upon civilian populations during World War II, writers have been trying to imagine what it would be like if civilization, as we know it, were to end in a nuclear holocaust. From Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), to countless end-of-the-world motion pictures of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to the hysteria raised by the television production, in 1983, of The Day After, Americans have been fascinated and appalled by the imagined scene of the destruction of the human race, or its rebirth from the ashes of a final world war. The human interest in universal destruction is age-old, giving rise to a whole school of millennial studies. Perhaps the nuclear age is not the first to imagine the ways and means of its own end, but certainly it must be the first to perceive that end so closely and so literally.
Fiskadoro is the second novel by Denis Johnson, a young writer who began his career as a poet and whose first novel, Angels (1983), received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In Fiskadoro, Johnson imagines a local, tribal culture flourishing in the Florida Keys some time after a nuclear war. The author suggests, through this portrayal, that a human culture can be reborn out of the wastes of war, but that—its history distorted and partially erased in the cataclysm—it may be destined to repeat the childhood of the race, with some crucial differences. Fiskadoro, in some respects, resembles an anthropologist’s report on a primitive society which, at times humorously, at times poignantly, maintains the vestiges of an advanced civilization without progress or efficiency.
Thus, the human characters who...
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