Richard Flanagan, Penguin Random House Australia, 2017, ISBN 978 0 14378 724 2, 392pp.
Richard Flanagan is a Tasmanian novelist. That august and reliable publication The Economist claims he is “considered by many to be the finest Australian novelist of his generation.” If that is so then I am ashamed to have missed his previous six novels of which, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the 2014 Man Booker prize. He won the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Prize in 2014 and donated the $40,000 prize to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. He has written critically of the Tasmanian government’s relationships with corporate interests. Flanagan wrote following the death of Tasmanian state premier Jim Bacon in 2004 that “under Bacon, Tasmania was given away to the rich at the expense of the poor.” Because of this Premier Paul Lennon declared that "Richard Flanagan and his fictions are not welcome in the new Tasmania.” This condemnation alone would have been enough to recommend Flanagan to me.
First Person is his first novel since winning the Man Booker. This particular offering caught my attention possibly because of its bright and eye-catching cover. I am a sucker for a good cover: the sleeve of an LP was always, to my mind, a solid indicator of its music. So too with a book. I enjoyed this book largely because it made me think about how I would handle the situation that the main protagonist finds himself in. That protagonist is Kif Kehlmann who is a struggling writer living in Tasmania with his wife, who is pregnant with twins, and his three-year old daughter. Kehlmann is an under-achiever who is struggling to support his family and who seems completely to underestimate the support that his wife is giving him. I don’t think we are supposed to like Kehlmann or to feel sorry for him and I wonder what that tells us about Flanagan himself. Kehlmann is called in the middle of the night by a notorious conman, Siegfried Heidl, and is asked to ghost-write Heidl’s memoirs. He has but six weeks to do this but if he succeeds he will get a sorely needed $10,000.
In writing his novel, Flanagan was able to draw on some personal experience. John Friedrich was executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia during the 1980s. He was the subject of Victoria's biggest fraud case and was known as "Australia's greatest conman". At the time of his death, Friedrich was writing an autobiography with the assistance of Richard Flanagan which was published posthumously. This experience has enabled Flanagan to write First Person. The story must mirror his own experiences. In the novel, Kehlmann finds Heidl to be unforthcoming in the extreme. He gets few details and struggles to write anything useful. At the same time Kehlmann is convinced that he is being manipulated by Heidl. Heidl is a mirror to Kehlmann, he reflects back to Kehlmann his weaknesses and throws them into sharp relief against the background of his marriage. I found the story compelling; it draws one in slowly. I found myself wondering about the extent to which we are manipulated through someone exploiting our insecurities, weaknesses and prejudices.
The novel is in two parts: a longer first part that leads up to Heidl’s death and then a shorter second part that tells of the aftermath and more particularly what happens to Kehlmann. The book leaves one with a feeling that something has been missed, that not everything is as it should be and that the line between fact and fantasy is not a line at all but simply a question about truth and reality. Of course, you can read this book as simply a story that someone has made up and, on that level, it’s an entertaining read. But on another level it makes you think about whether you have the right to criticise Kehlmann’s actions. You could give this book to someone for Christmas. Or you could read it yourself. Either way you would probably be satisfied.