A subtle weaving of passion and despair
FICTION: Wanting, By Richard Flanagan, Atlantic, 252pp, £14.99
HISTORY HAS many stories; the huge ones absorbed into the communal consciousness and those tiny human tales that splinter into pieces of memory all too often lost. Sometimes though, these small stories are retrieved through a diary or a chance image, a half–remembered connection that leads on to another, or to several. Writers scan history and recorded fact, a chance remark, ever on the alert for the missing face, the life that holds an untold story. The gifted Tasmanian Richard Flanagan has followed one such face, one such life and created in Wantinga novel of singular beauty and so vivid a grace it inspires strange elation as well as pity for the lost.
And the lost are a brutalised Tasmanian tribe rounded up like cattle. The history of the slaughter is documented as it is the work of George Augustus Robinson, one time London “carpenter cum preacher” turned colonial official who was entrusted with the Crown’s dirty work, that of removing the remaining Aboriginal people from Tasmania. Most of them had already been butchered.
In Flanagan’s version he emerges as a righteous little fellow who accepts the title of “The Protector”. Robinson herds the survivors into camps, intent on imposing civilisation, merely to demonstrate a breathtaking insensitivity towards their culture. “Though he was weaning them off their native diet of berries and plants and shellfish and game, and onto flour and sugar and tea, their health seemed in no way comparable to what it had been. And the more they took to English blankets and heavy English clothes, abandoning their licentious nakedness, the more they coughed and spluttered and died.”
It is that familiar story; the oppressor bursts in to impose his culture on the native population, and destroys an ancient way of life in the process. Flanagan is exposing the colonial legacy in a polemic that convinces, yet also beguiles through the beauty of its telling. The irony is there; sharp as a knife yet so too is the pathos, the confused intentions. Wantingis in ways a dazzling companion text to Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish(2001) a literary tour de forcethat nods quite brilliantly to tradition. In that novel, the convict artist Gould passes his days in a penal station. One of his models is a tribal chieftain, Towterer, King Romeo. Old Towterer also features in Wanting, as the father of one of the central characters, a child named Mathinna. Robinson had decided to call her Leda, yet as he reflects, “for some reason everyone else called her by her native name.”
Towterer is fading fast when Robinson is sent for. When the Protector returns the following day, he finds the patient has died “and when the Protector went to examine the body, he felt boredom possessing him in the way pity once had.”
Strange, considering King Romeo had once saved his life. As the dead man’s woman, his wife having died some years earlier, wails and slashes her flesh with a piece of glass, the young girl, Mathinna remains calm. Her reaction interests the Protector who wonders “if perhaps she might be more amenable to a civilising influence than he had previously thought.”
The young girl’s beauty catches the attention of Lady Jane Franklin, disappointed wife of the island’s governor, Sir John Franklin, the famous explorer. Lady Jane greatly prefers the idea of her husband off on his daring adventures to being in his dull company: “She talked to him of history, landscapes, picturesque ruins and her sensation of vertigo when, as a child, she gathered with vast crowds of the lowliest of London to watch Byron’s funeral parade and the thought she might fall forever. He replied with reports of navigation. . . he was boredom from the beginning, and if it was difficult to square the romance that surrounded his name with the torpor of his company, it was clear”.
Flanagan’s writing is light, mercurial, the narrative moves convincingly between its various components, including its unifying theme of wanting, without ever appearing forced or contrived.
The great writer and showman Charles Dickens becomes involved as does Wilkie Collins through their collaborative venture The Frozen Deep, a play based on Franklin’s expedition and largely written by Collins. Dickens had participated in a public debate through the pages of his periodical, Household Words, on the issue of alleged, and apparently proven, cannibalism among Franklin’s starving men. Dickens is a larger-than-life character and Flanagan makes inspired use of the Victorian writer’s well-documented frenetic personality. The facts of his unhappy marriage to the unfortunate Catherine, worn out by relentless childbirth, and the loss of their daughter Dora, are used to dramatic effect. In the course of casting the play, Dickens meets the actress Ellen Ternan and experiences an incapacitating passion. Flanagan evokes the obsessive nature of Dickens’s love, the heady “wanting” or desire for Ternan that drives him to distraction.
Then there is the wanting experienced by the childless Lady Jane who brings little Mathinna into her home, attempting to make a princess of her, only to reduce the child to an exotic pet. Lady Jane also prefers to concentrate on her husband as a heroic icon rather than as a companion and delights in the abstract notion of his legacy. All the while Mathinna, caught between cultures, changes from free spirit to caged toy. When Lady Jane realises she can no longer deal with the child, she abandons her at an orphanage. The girl’s subsequent tragedy of prostitution and alcoholism, culminating in a squalid death, acquires a symbolic resonance in the context of the entire colonial nightmare. Everything that is grotesque about civilisation is exposed by Flanagan whose polemical intent is never obscured by the artistry of this beautiful, tragic yet vibrant novel.
In one of the many dramatic exchanges Dickens remarks to Ellen Ternan, (who as some biographers suspect may have become his mistress, although this is disputed) “People forget that Shakespeare was an actor first, and a writer only second. That is the secret of his genius. He had no sense of himself and existed only through his imitations of others.” It is a moment of insight. Flanagan quickly follows with another: “There, Dickens thought with an odd shock: I have given you the secret of myself.”
Performance shapes the narrative; everyone is acting – Dickens, Lady Franklin, Robinson, even the doomed Mathinna. Flanagan’s virtuoso handling of historical fact and storytelling, combined with his understanding of human nature, confirms that in works such as this fiction achieves high art.
This is yet another of the year’s finest works overlooked by the Man Booker judges. Regardless of which novel wins next week, none stands equal to the compelling artistry of this subtly impressionistic narrative woven from passion, yearning and despair.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times