The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was swept into existence on a torrent of blood, the blood of the Aboriginal inhabitants who stood in the way of the European invaders’ notions of progress, and the blood of the convicts whose punishment for crimes, real or imagined, in the Old World was to subjugate the new, untamed land to the south.
Tasmania, it seems, has an uneasy relationship with its past. That Van Diemen’s Land was re-invented as Tasmania was neither a quirk of history nor an idle flight of fancy, but rather a conscious attempt to sweep the excesses of its first 50 years under Britain’s threadbare colonial carpet.
Today, authors and film-makers are increasingly exploring the early history of Tasmania. The 2009 movie that is called simply Van Diemen’s Land focuses on one of the darkest episodes in the early history of the island, the descent into cannibalism of a group of eight convicts led by Alexander Pearce. The wretched prisoners did a runner from the infamous penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania only to find the land into which they had fled to be bleak, unforgiving and almost totally devoid of anything edible … except their fellow escapees.
For anyone planning to visit Tassie this film is good homework, providing an insight into an event nearly 200 years ago that continues to fascinate the locals today. The savagery of the penal regime is surpassed only by the brutality of the forests and mountains. And, not least, the movie reminds the potential visitor of the need for decent rainwear … my god, if this film is to be believed we’ll need it.
Richard Flanagan, Tasmania’s foremost literary author, also writes about the penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in his 2002 novel, Gould’s Book of Fish. Flanagan is one of those commentators unhappy with Australian – and Tasmanian – reluctance to confront the ‘convict stain’ that disfigures the early history of both country and state. I’d hoped, therefore, that Gould’s Book of Fish would offer the prospective tourist some insights, a dummies’ guide to the penal system that gave birth to a nation.
I should have known better. Flanagan writes literature, not books, and in 2014 was rewarded with the Man Booker Prize for his troubles, in recognition of his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Inevitably, therefore, dummies’ guides are not what he does. Gould’s Book of Fish is not an easy read, though to be fair he warns his readers not to expect too much when he has his first narrator say the following:
I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.
Spot on with that one, Mr F. Richard Flanagan is obviously a talented writer – they don’t give the Man Booker away lightly and Gould’s Book of Fish is not totally without merit, although the Guardian reviewer didn’t much care for it. But as preparatory reading for a trip to Tassie this book promises more than it delivers, and to be frank life’s way too short.