Reading room: latest books
Richard Flanagan strikes gold again with this Faustian tale about a penniless writer, says Juliet Rieden.
First Person by Richard Flanagan, Penguin/Random House.
When, as a young man and yet to become an award-winning novelist, Richard Flanagan was offered a gig to ghostwrite Australian fraudster John Friedrich’s memoir for a princely $10,000, he saw it as a lucky break.
Here was a chance to ditch his labouring job and earn much-needed cash – his wife was six months pregnant with twins – and fund his own writing. Friedrich was about to stand trial and certain to be convicted, and Flanagan had six weeks to complete the biography. Then, just days before the court case, the con man was found with a bullet in his head, a supposed suicide. The subsequent opus, Codename Iago, wasn’t Flanagan’s finest hour, but working with Friedrich was a uniquely unsettling experience that stayed with him for more than a quarter of a century and became the inspiration for this dark and intoxicating new novel.
“He frightened me a great deal,” Flanagan tells me, “but he was, in fairness, a very different character to the con man in my novel, Siegfried Heidl, who is evil.”
Heidl is indeed an extraordinary character, who, in Flanagan’s hands, also becomes chillingly seductive. The book is told in the first person by rakish Kif Kehlmann, the writer who is hired by Siegfried Heidl to immortalise his life. Kehlmann later moves into reality TV.
It takes a while to delve into the narrative, but persevere – soon you are enveloped by the slippery and poisonous world of Heidl. There’s a film noir, Raymond Chandler feel to the writing; it’s gritty and pregnant with earthy storytelling. Yet the novel is also probing on big questions, such as truth and fiction, and the ambiguity of right and wrong in modern times. “We blame our leaders, but it is us who have lost our courage,” explains Flanagan. “The present time feels like a fog and the truth is only a distant, dim light. But that light is there; we need to rediscover the courage to walk towards it.”
What also delights is Flanagan’s powerful prose. The scene of Kif’s wife giving birth to twins is an excruciating and evocative mess of raw emotion, which will have you gasping for air. When the second baby is born within its translucent amniotic sac, Kif spies his baby boy. “He had blue eyes, an unearthly china blue, large and open as a summer sky,” writes Flanagan. “In the dimly lit ward, those eyes gazed steadily and calmly at me. The enormity of it, the insignificance of me, everything at that moment suddenly made sense and was as it should be.” Kif then loses grip on what should be, with shocking repercussions, in what is a tour de force from a great contemporary writer.