Richard Flanagan’s new novel, First Per­son, is about a strug­gling Tas­ma­nian writer who ghost­writes the bi­og­ra­phy of Aus­tralia’s great­est con man. Twenty-six years ago, Flanagan, a strug­gling Tas­ma­nian writer, did write a bi­og­ra­phy of a real Aus­tralian con

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Our first bat­tle was birth. I wanted it in, he wanted it out. All that day and half of the next we ar­gued. He said it had noth­ing to do with him. Later I be­gan to see his point, but at the time it seemed bloody-mind­ed­ness and ev­i­dence of an in­ex­pli­ca­ble ob­struc­tion — as though he didn’t ac­tu­ally want any mem­oir ever writ­ten. Of course, he didn’t want a mem­oir writ­ten, but that wasn’t his point. Or the point. But I only re­alised this later, much later, when I came to fear that the be­gin­ning of that book was also the end of me. Too late, in other words. These days I con­tent my­self with re­al­ity TV. There is a void, a lone­li­ness that aches and rattles. That fright­ens. That ter­ri­fies me that I should have lived and never did. Re­al­ity TV doesn’t have this ef­fect on me.

Back then though, all this was con­fus­ing. It was feared by oth­ers that I might re­lapse into lit­er­a­ture. By which I mean al­le­gory, sym­bol, the tropes of time danc­ing; of books that didn’t have a par­tic­u­lar be­gin­ning or end, or at least not in that or­der. By whom I mean the pub­lisher, a man by the un­ex­pected name of Gene Pa­ley. He had been quite spe­cific in this re­gard: I was to tell a sim­ple story sim­ply, and where it was not sim­ple — when it dealt with the com­plex­i­ties of the spec­tac­u­lar crime — sim­plify, il­lus­trate by way of anec­dote, and never have a sen­tence that lin­gered longer than two lines.

It was whis­pered around the pub­lish­ing house that Gene Pa­ley was fright­ened of lit­er­a­ture. And not with­out good rea­son. For one thing, it doesn’t sell. For an­other, it can fairly be said that it asks ques­tions that it can’t an­swer. It as­ton­ishes peo­ple with them­selves, which, on bal­ance, is rarely a good thing. It re­minds them that the busi­ness of life is fail­ure, and that the fail­ure to know this is true ig­no­rance. Maybe there is tran­scen­dence in all this, or wis­dom in some of it, but Gene Pa­ley didn’t see him­self in the tran­scen­dence game. Gene Pa­ley was all for books telling you one or two things over and over again. But prefer­ably only one. Sell­ing, Gene Pa­ley would say, is telling. I opened the man­u­script again and re-read the open­ing lines.

On 17 May 1983, I signed my ap­pli­ca­tion let­ter for the po­si­tion of Act­ing Safety Of­fi­cer (su­per­vi­sor) (Act­ing Class 4/5) at the Aus­tralian Safety Or­gan­i­sa­tion, with two words, Siegfried Heidl, and my new life be­gan.

Only much later did I dis­cover that Siegfried Heidl had never ex­isted un­til that day he signed the let­ter, so — strictly speak­ing — it was an hon­est ac­count. But the past is al­ways un­pre­dictable and, as I was to learn, not his least gift as a con man was that he rarely lied.

Ziggy Heidl’s point of view was that his 12,000-word man­u­script — the thin pile of stacked pa­pers on which he would fre­quently press down with his out­stretched hand as if it were a bas­ket­ball to be bounced and put back into play — said ev­ery­thing that any­one would ever be in­ter­ested in read­ing about Ziggy Heidl. My job as a writer, he went on, was sim­ply to sharpen his sen­tences, and per­haps elab­o­rate here and there a lit­tle on his ac­count.

He said this, as he said so much else, with such be­lief, with such con­fi­dence and such con­vic­tion, that I found it very dif­fi­cult to point out, as I had to, that his man­u­script made no men­tion of his child­hood, his par­ents or even, for that mat­ter, his year of birth. His re­ply has re­mained with me, even af­ter all these years. A life isn’t an onion to be peeled, a palimpsest to be scraped back to some orig­i­nal, truer mean­ing. It’s an in­ven­tion that never ends.

And when I must have looked struck by his elab­o­rate turn of phrase, Heidl added, as if giv­ing di­rec­tions to a pub­lic toi­let: Tebbe. It’s one of his apho­risms.

What he lacked in facts, he made up for with an un­der­stated con­vic­tion; and what he lacked in con­vic­tion he made up for with facts, al­beit mostly in­vented, and ren­dered all the more plau­si­ble be­cause they were so lightly thrown up from an un­ex­pected an­gle.

The great Ger­man in­stal­la­tion­ist, Heidl said. To­mas Tebbe.

I had no idea what a palimpsest might be. Or who Tebbe was, or what an in­stal­la­tion­ist did, or was, and said so. Heidl made no re­ply. Maybe, as he told me an­other time, we take from our past and the past of oth­ers to make our­selves anew, and the some­thing new is our mem­ory too. Tebbe, whom I only read many years later, put it best: It may be some­one else’s blood soak­ing into the dust, he wrote, but I am that dust.

I looked up. Out of in­ter­est, I said, where­abouts in Ger­many did you grow up?

Ger­many? Ziggy Heidl said, look­ing out the win­dow. I never went there un­til I was 26. I told you. I grew up in South Aus­tralia. Your ac­cent is Ger­man. Roger that, Ziggy Heidl said. And when he turned his fleshy face back to me I tried not to stare at the small mus­cle in his oth­er­wise puffy cheek that twitched when he smiled, a knot of taut­ness amidst the slack­ness, a sin­gle tight mus­cle puls­ing in and out.

I know it’s odd, but there you are — I grew up with Ger­man-speak­ing par­ents and no one to play with. But I was happy. Write that. He was smil­ing. His smile: an un­der­tow of sin­is­ter com­plic­ity. What? I said. That. What? Write: I was happy. That ter­ri­ble smile. That twitch­ing cheek. Boom-boom, it silently went. Boom-boom. We were work­ing in a pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive’s cor­ner of­fice in a pub­lish­ing com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Port Melbourne. Per­haps it had been the of­fice of an ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor or a sales man­ager, re­cently re­tired or lately sacked. Who knows? We were never told, but the of­fice made Ziggy Heidl feel im­por­tant and that was im­por­tant, and if I felt em­bar­rassed, that wasn’t. It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tives still had such rooms and liquor cab­i­nets; be­fore Ama­zon and ebooks; be­fore phrases like gran­u­lar an­a­lyt­ics, cus­tomer ful­fil­ment, and sup­ply chain align­ment had con­nected like tight­en­ing coils in a hang­man’s noose; be­fore the re­lent­less rise of prop­erty val­ues and the col­lapse of pub­lish­ing saw pub­lish­ers’ of­fices morph into abat­toir-like assem­bly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches rem­i­nis­cent of, say, a Red Army can­teen in Kabul, circa 1979.

And like the Red Army then, pub­lish­ing was en­ter­ing a cri­sis of stag­na­tion not yet un­der­stood as ei­ther a cri­sis or as ter­mi­nal. And be­neath where the pub­lish­ing peo­ple sat were so many lit­tle holes be­ing bored by re­dun­dan­cies slowly com­ing to­gether into one large sink hole through which, a few years hence, the sev­eral floors of the pub­lish­ing house would sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly fall un­til they landed with a crash and com­pressed into just one floor. Then that floor, in turn, would be­gin to shrink as a ris­ing sea of start-ups, fi­nance com­pa­nies and net busi­nesses flooded over the pub­lisher’s of­fice space — an en­croach­ing ocean of dis­rup­tion — un­til the floor was now only half a floor, and on that van­ish­ing is­land books were now only con­tent and writ­ers only con­tent providers, sand­bag fillers, but of an ever lower and lower caste,

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