Richard Flanagan, Wanting (Knopf 2008)
Even though I’m addicted to print, or perhaps because I am, I approach most books with a kind of resentful suspicion. It’s as if I’m projecting onto the book an anxious feeling that Schopenhauer might have been right when he said, in the essay ‘Thinking for Oneself’:
Reading is thinking with some one else’s head instead of one’s own. … Nothing is more harmful than, by dint of continual reading, to strengthen the current of other people’s thoughts. These thoughts, springing from different minds, belonging to different systems, bearing different colours, never flow together of themselves into a unity of thought, knowledge, insight, or conviction, but rather cram the head with a Babylonian confusion of tongues; consequently the mind becomes overcharged with them and is deprived of all clear insight and almost disorganised.
I came to Wanting with my normal ambivalence, plus an extra burden of suspicion, because the only other novel by Richard Flanagan to have entered the cram in my head was the abysmal Unknown Terrorist. I was willing to give this one a go because he writes compelling non-fiction, and the earlier, terrible novel was set a long way from his native Tasmania, in a place he clearly loathed and equally clearly didn’t know at all well, whereas this one is largely back in Van Diemen’s Land. Book Clubbers recommended it (that’s the Book Club, where we swap, not the Book Group, where we discuss). I took it home and eventually opened it up.
I wish I could say my suspicion evaporated within a couple of pages, but I can’t. A Protector of Aborigines, Charles Dickens, Lady Jane Franklin (widow of Sir John Franklin, Governor of Van Diemens Land and explorer) are introduced to us in a series of clunkily expository scenes. That would be all right, but the clunkiness comes with lashings of heavy irony – the narrative voice is unpleasantly insistent that it knows better than the Presbyterian Protector, and really really wants us to know it doesn’t share the genocidal racism of all the white characters. Maybe things would improve once the story got under way, I thought. But there were other discouraging signs. On page 14, to pick the most striking example, the Presbyterian Protector, in 1851, sings some lines from ‘Lead Kindly Light’. That’s unlikely, I thought, given that the hymn was written by high Anglican John Henry Newman, no friend of Presbyterians. Fifteen seconds with Google revealed that though Newman wrote the words of the hymn in 1833, it wasn’t until 1857 that someone put them to music. So it’s not only unlikely, it’s a straightforward anachronism. And I don’t think that’s just nitpicking. If the novel, having already repeatedly pronounced judgment on this character, doesn’t care enough about him to know what hymns he would or even could have sung, why should I trust anything it says about any of its characters?
I did read on. But by page 55 I realised I was motivated entirely by some weird sense of obligation. There was no pleasure. I didn’t believe a word. I put the book back on the shelf. It may be very good. It may fully deserve the awards and critical praise it has attracted. It may successfully mirror the terrible anguish that accompanied the belief that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were about to die out, as an author’s note says it aims to do. It probably is a moving meditation on the conflict between reason and desire or some other Significant Dichotomy. I’ll never know. And I probably won’t bore you ever again with blog entries on Richard Flanagan’s work.