Book Review 
First Person, by Richard Flanagan (Knopf, $48)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
‘WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014’. That’s the top line on the book’s cover. Then it says RICHARD FLANAGAN; third line is “First Person”. The reader would be forgiven for thinking this book is the winner but that, as they say, is fake news. The book of Flanagan’s that won the Man Booker in 2014 is Narrow Road to the Deep North and that is a winner from whatever angle you read it. He has also written non-fiction books and is a provocative journalist and political activist.
Flanagan’s writing journey began with his Australian birth in the somewhat isolated southern island of Tasmania, of which he is fiercely and actively protective. His novels had received several honours and were published in 42 countries prior to the bestowing of the Booker. A more familiar book to readers may be The Sound of One Man Clapping, which was made into a film.
It is relevant to the construct of First Person that in 1991 Flanagan was a speedy ghost-writer for an autobiography of Australia’s fraudster and con man John Friedrich, which he wrote in six weeks to make money to buy time to write his first novel. Although Friedrich killed himself in the middle of writing process, the book was published posthumously. It has been described as: “one of the least reliable but most fascinating memoirs in the annals of Australian publishing”’. In First Person, narrator Kif Kehlman’s book is being written about Siegfried Heidl who, like Friedrich, had worked for an Australaian national safety organisation.
Art indeed imitates life. But no spoilers will be given here. Suffice to say the novel is about a novelist hastily ghost-writing the biography of a crook about to go to trial preparatory to imprisonment. As author-narrator Kehlman tries to get blood out of his stone man, a lot of time passes and the reader is kept on a cliff-edge with many pages about nothing much but temperamental musings from the narrator — between drinks.
The two main characters are pale monotone washes: one opaque and the other transparent. Flanagan even has Kehlman admit: “I tried to write and (he) yo-yoed in and out, leaving me and the book becalmed.” The book seems to be a vessel for Kehlman to look at his own life, past and present. Perhaps the wisest thing Heidl has to say is: “Stories are all that we have to hold us together. Religion, science, money – they’re all just stories. Australia is a story, politics is a story, religion is a story, money is a story.” This from the man whose story is meant to be written, here, now, in this book, and it’s a struggle to get any facts out of him. Maybe a lot of this book is in-jokes for readers and authors, such as: “The English Booker winner who always had to have two prostitutes waiting for him after an event”. Yet another commercial transaction from an author, as the ghost writer prostitutes his art?
Reminiscent of Italian writer Italo Cavallo’s If on a Winter Night a Traveler, about the reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler, but more relevant to our world of ghost-written memoir, First Person at least consistently stays with the entitled point of view. It also contains some splendidly filmic birth and death scenes — in fact, the whole book would make an entertaining movie.
I suppose it could be considered a story about truth – what is it, and why we choose to believe what we do in the clamour of information about people and their lives. Flanagan beieves “The history of literature is really a Milky Way of thieves and robbers who steal from everything. But in that strange alchemy that’s writing it becomes something else. And it’s that something else that radiates light.”
I found it hard to find the light in First Person.