Finding the truth behind the lies

Australian author Richard Flanagan. Photo: supplied
Australian author Richard Flanagan. Photo: supplied

In First Person, Richard Flanagan takes the concept of a "post-truth'' world much further than simply the impact of fake news.

Richard Flanagan


In 1991, Richard Flanagan was offered $10,000 to ghost-write the autobiography of John Freidrich, one of Australia's most notorious conmen.

Like the protagonist in this stunning novel - Kif Kehlmann - Flanagan was broke, his wife was pregnant with twins and he grudgingly took the job.

Three weeks into the project, Friedrich killed himself and Flanagan had to plod on and finish the book alone.

Kehlmann is not so lucky.

The man he eventually agrees to profile is Ziggy Heidl - an enigmatic pseudo-philosopher who has defrauded Aussie banks of $700 million.

His trial is six weeks away and prison looks inevitable.

Kehlmann just has to pin him down, squeeze out his story and make it shine.

But Heidl is more than elusive, leaving the Melbourne publishers' office for long periods and while there spouting his half-baked wisdoms and witticisms, throwing his ghost writer off the scent.

Kehlmann's endeavour is not aided by the passive-aggressive pressure placed on him by his publisher, Gene Paley.

While the book delves deeply into the psyche of its major players, it is also a satirical dissection of the cynical publishing industry.

Good writing does not sell, Paley warns Kehlmann, only bad.

In his attitude and the evasive nature of Heidl lies one of the major themes of the novel: the issue of the truth.

While it is the glittering diamond Kehlmann seeks to unearth through his writing, the best he can get out of his subject are half truths.

"There is no truth, only interpretations. That's why we do better liberated from the truth,'' Heidl says.

Heidl's reconstruction of his past is a mish-mash of dreams and improvisations, the author suspects.

Getting to the truth of the matter causes huge frustration to Kehlmann until he lets go, surrenders himself to the lies and allows himself to be tossed around by the fraudster's deceit.

It is the only way he can write the book.

But in doing so, Kehlmann loses something of himself; and Heidl has him.

The brilliance of the novel is the portrayal of their interaction, their clashes and ultimate union.

This whole concept of a "post-truth'' world, in which we now live, as a theme is in vogue but Flanagan takes it much further than simply the impact of fake news.

Kehlmann's life is corrupted by his choices, his compromises and his single-minded desire to be a writer.

The final section of the book, which skips a significant chunk of time, is necessary if not a little clunky. It demonstrates the ultimate effect of the two characters' relationship and shows they are not as different as Kehlmann may have thought.

Flanagan is the sort of writer you wish you could be.

Rob Kidd is an ODT court reporter.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of First Person, by Richard Flanagan, to give away courtesy of Penguin. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘First Person’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, November 14.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Good-bye Maoriland, by Chris Bourke, courtesy of Auckland University Press: Peter Loader, of Dunedin, Stuart Preddy, of Dunedin, Jill Grenfell, of Oamaru, Graham Harris, of Wanaka, and Fin Torrance, of Dunedin.


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