Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Who William Buelow Gould was to begin with will never be known. Gould himself has no idea who he really was, other than that he was the product of a nameless man who died making love to a nameless woman who died in the act of childbirth. Young William is brought up in the poorhouse until apprenticed to a stonemason. Unsuited to the heavy work, he runs away to London and begins an odyssey that will take him across the world, finally arriving at the Tasmanian penal colony of Sarah Island.

Indeed, Gould never set out to be a painter at all; all he wanted to do was survive. As luck would have it, in America he falls in with Jean-Babeuf Audubon, with whom he embarks on an abortive business venture. Audubon, not unlike his namesake John James, is a painter of birds, and from him Gould gets the first inkling of what it might mean to be an artist. However, Gould himself has no particular interest in painting until he reaches a situation where claiming to be an artist will conveniently get him out of trouble. At this point, Gould assumes the identity of an artist, helped by having worked for a few months decorating porcelain, and he manages to fake his way as such until, having arrived at Sarah Island, he finds himself employed by the prison doctor.

Tobias Lempriere is desperate to become a fellow of the Royal Society, and he believes that Gould’s skills will help him to secure this coveted position by having Gould paint the fish of Macquarie Harbor. At first, Gould struggles to fulfil Lempriere’s demands; he is more used to painting copies of old master paintings. However, almost in spite of himself, Gould begins to paint in earnest, and he struggles with the fact that he is no longer faking his skills, as he has faked so much throughout his life, but is in fact an artist.

However, the reader learns Gould’s story through words rather than through pictures. Gould is, or so he claims, writing his life story while imprisoned in a cell that is flooded by the tide twice a day, and which also contains the rotting corpse of a man whom Gould has indirectly killed. He is, by his own admission, an entirely unreliable narrator, and the experienced reader will have noticed that someone—perhaps Gould, perhaps someone else—has studded Gould’s narrative with elements of other stories. An episode from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) makes an appearance, as does a fragment of plot from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). These are stories Gould is unlikely to have come across, which throws open the question of whether this is Gould’s own narrative, or whether Gould even existed.

For Gould’s narrative is in fact being re-created by one Sid Hammet, who found the book in a junk shop and was entranced by the extraordinary paintings and the peculiar, multicolored narrative, until one night he left the book on a pub counter and, so he says, lost it. The narrative that is available to readers is Sid’s recollection of Gould’s narrative rather than the book itself, and it may in turn be wrong. Gould’s own concern in writing his narrative is to record his autobiography,...

(The entire section is 814 words.)