22 April, 2009

'Wanting' - Richard Flanagan

In a magnificent piece of comedy, Stephen Fry postulates that 'there's language, and there's speech. There's chess, and there's a game of chess'. In the case of Richard Flanagan's Wanting, this statement could be revised to say there's an idea, and there's the execution of that idea.

In this novel, the former is well formed, and, in an unusual move for a fiction book, quite explicitly explained by the author in an afterword. The inclusion of the afterword could have been at the direction of Flanagan's publisher, or perhaps he chose to do so, due to inevitable confusion over the veracity of the novel. Flanagan uses real characters and recognisable historical settings, but his story is adamantly fictional. While this writing style is the cause of much modern consternation, Flanagan pointed out in an interview with Ramona Koval that several great literary works (eg Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace) do just that and are valued nonetheless.

Wanting's premise is one of enormous scope, requiring research into two very different and differentiated societies, between which Flanagan draws a valid link. To summarise: the book opens with Mathinna, a seven-year-old Tasmanian Aboriginal, who lives on Flinders Island (to which the Tasmanian Aboriginals were exiled after the Black Wars). She is adopted by Lady and Sir John Franklin. Sir John is a famed Arctic explorer and, at the time of Mathinna's adoption, Governor of Tasmania; his wife is a model of refined society. After being removed from gubernatorial duties, the Franklins return to England and Mathinna is discarded. Years later, Sir John is lost on an Arctic voyage, and Lady Franklin employs the greatest writer of the age, Charles Dickens, to refute claims against Sir John of cannibalism. Dickens, late in his career, sees a mirror of his life in the emptiness of the Arctic wilderness, but finds elation in the production of a play and the attentions of one its actresses.

The key theme is that of savagery versus civilisation. The Franklins and Dickens repeat the maxim that the difference between the two lies in the civilised man's ability to suppress his desires, a truism destroyed over and over again by the Victorians' actions, both personal and social. As he has become known for, Flanagan employs a sparseness of style, offset by moments of beauty and trickeries of description, to create an engaging flow of words. The themes trickle far more continuously through the book than their complexity would suggest.

It's in the execution where I start asking questions. For all the beauty and restraint of style, there is some clumsy language, particularly in similes and metaphors. 'Tears falling like rain' and spider webs like gossamers sound lazy and dilute Flanagan's accomplishment. The metaphor of Sir John as a swan (Zeus) and Mathinna as Leda (as she is called on Flinders Island, upon hearing which Lady Franklin explains the story from Greek mythology of Zeus raping Leda and thus begetting Helen of Troy) is clumsy, a little heavy, and too literally borne out.

My most significant problem with the book lies within the enacting of this metaphor. History does repeat itself between Zeus and Leda, but Flanagan only alludes to the act, three times; he never names it as rape. Mathinna, whose whole life is appallingly interfered with, becomes a prostitute, and at that stage of the story Flanagan wilfully describes what men do to her. I recognise this as a feminist perspective, but I felt it lacked a certain sympathy to treat the two circumstances so differently. If a modern author is going to bring rape into a book, I think we are beyond a hush-hush treatment of it, particularly when its occurence under the guise of prostitution is mentioned, repeatedly, so glibly (Mathinna does not come to that profession by choice, nor is she always reimbursed). In a similar vein, as I read I asked myself whether or not our nation is best served by continued fictionalising of the de-landing and extermination of our indigenous culture.

Despite those reservations, I still regard Richard Flanagan as one of our most commendable writers. When he writes about our small southern island and its original inhabitants he is writing from his own passions. (Which is itself an interesting notion, since so much of the novel is about denying passion and desire.) The greatest accomplishments in the book come from Flanagan daring to occupy the headspace of these huge, historial figures, and present each of their perspectives with such intensity. Each character brings confusion, conflict and yearning to the story; as each endeavours to bend their desires to the quelling force of colonialism, the pressure that shaped our modern country exhales from the page.

Loose similes aside, and looking beyond the issues with meaning and theme, the creation that Flanagan has pursued is testament to his skill and the breadth of his imagination, a writer's most valuable tool.

Also by Richard Flanagan:
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
The Unknown Terrorist


  1. Thanks for this review, interesting.
    I have been weighing up whether to take this book on, and based on your comments might give it a miss. I agree with you that he is certainly commendable, and doesn't seem to shy away from really interesting subject material. But my comments on The Unknown Terrorist would mirror yours on this book- idea great/ execution lacking, a fairly wierd perspective on female sexuality and some descriptive writing that was pretty pedestrian. That said, he really has his place- the reason I read TUT in the first place was because my sister would not stop raving about it...so I guess there are some people out there who really love his work!

  2. Ah, there's the rub! I don't like to discourage people from reading Flanagan, but nor can I review the book honestly without including my reservations.

    I was enthralled by 'The Unknown Terrorist', so perhaps our reactions would differ similarly on 'Wanting' and it would be more to your taste. I'm reading 'Gould's Book of Fish' at the moment, hopefully to restore that positivity.

    Regardless, I do think Flanagan's is an important voice, because it's helping to develop a unique Australian style. We're not all going to love that style, but we need our national literature to stand out, particularly if the fight about parallel importation goes the distributors' way.