Fiction – Kindle edition; Chatto & Windus; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.
Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors, but I put off reading First Person for years because I had seen so many bad reviews of it. I guess I didn’t want to have my high opinion of him altered in any way.
But I now wonder if those reviews, all published in the UK when I was living there, just didn’t properly appreciate the fact the story was about a real-life fraudster, John Friedrich, who dominated the Australian media landscape in the 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out that when Flanagan was a struggling writer — while he was penning his first novel Death of a River Guide — he was contracted to write Friedrich’s memoir.
This novel is a fictionalised account of what it was like to act as the ghostwriter of “Australia’s biggest conman”, a man who lied about everything, including where he was born and gave Flanagan so little to work with he had to make large chunks of it up. It’s a book about truth and lies and the grey margins in between, and it’s a riveting exploration of ethics and morality in publishing long before the internet or social media blurred the lines between fact and fiction.
But first, let’s talk a bit about Friedrich because I think it’s important to really understand the strange and slippery character that is at the heart of this novel.
Australia’s biggest fraudster
Friedrich, who committed suicide in July 1991 just days after he appeared in court on charges involving defrauding the banks of almost $300 million, was a complicated man.
He came to Australia, from Germany, in the 1970s using a fake name and fake qualifications. After various stints in construction and the Uniting Church, he joined the National Safety Council of Australia in Victoria, where he later became executive director. He was lauded as a hero (he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1988) because he greatly expanded the council’s role to become a vital search and rescue operation, investing money in high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art aids, but when it collapsed financially, thanks to millions of dollars worth of bank loans that couldn’t be repaid, he went on the run.
When he was found, after an exhausting nationwide manhunt, he was charged with 92 counts of obtaining property by deception. It later transpired that he was not an Australian citizen and did not have a valid birth certificate. Who exactly was this man? And how had he pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?
In First Person, much of Friedrich’s backstory is not fully explained — it’s assumed you know about this conman’s activities — but there’s enough information for you to piece together the idea that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s done bad things and that there are so many rumours swirling around him — did he work for the CIA, for instance — that it’s seemingly impossible to get a handle on who he really is.
And that’s the dilemma that faces the narrator in the story: how does he produce a truthful ghostwritten memoir of a man who is so lax with the truth?
But, of course, this is a novel, not non-fiction, so the Friedrich character goes by the name of Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl, and the narrator is an impoverished writer from Hobart called Kif Kehlmann. Kif is writing a novel while working a series of unsteady jobs to make ends meet. He has a young daughter, Bo, and his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins.
The offer of a six-week job in Melbourne to ghostwrite the memoirs of a man due to go to prison tempts Kif because of its potential to break him into publishing, while also netting a much-needed $10,000 fee. But it comes with all kinds of strings attached (this novel does a nice send-up of the publishing industry and the bizarre “rules” of the trade), and when he meets Ziggy he does not like him very much and struggles to get any information out of him that could be used in the book.
Being nice doesn’t cut it, and Kif is too weak and ineffectual to deal with a hard nut like Ziggy who comes out with extraordinary words of wisdom and advice, quoting Neitzche and philosophising about life and how to live it.
You want to live without enemies, Heidl said, that’s your problem. You think if I am good and kind and don’t speak ill of others I won’t have enemies. But you will, you just don’t know it yet. They’re out there, your enemies, you just haven’t met them. You can seek them out or pretend they don’t exist but they’ll still find you. Trust me. You want to be like a dog that everyone likes, but there’s not a dog alive someone doesn’t want to kick or kill. You want everyone to be your friend. Why? Why bother?
Ziggy spends a lot of time having lunch with contacts, including investors he claims are going to help him build a space station in Queensland, while avoiding Kif as much as possible. Kif, in turn, spends a lot of time gnashing his teeth and then taking out all his frustrations on his poor hapless wife when he returns home for weekend visits to Hobart.
The narrative begins to build when it’s clear Kif is not going to meet deadlines or word counts set for him by the seemingly greedy publisher, Gene Paley, for whom he is working.
It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ziggy dies — though whether by his own hand or someone else’s is one of the puzzles Flanagan explores in this fictionalised account — at around the three-quarters mark, and then First Person loses a bit of steam. The remaining quarter of the novel is taken up with Kif’s life after the memoir is posthumously published, riffing on the idea that his exposure to so many lies and untruths has somehow infected his own psyche, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.
Kif seems unable to reconcile the idea that writing novels for a living is a noble profession. A woman he meets in a New York bar sums it up neatly for him:
It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things, Emily was saying. Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again. Novels disempower reality, the beard said.
First Person is an eloquent, if somewhat uneven, exploration of truth, corporate greed and the idea that the past always catches up with you.
For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.
Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this book.
If you like this, you might also like:
This documentary on 9 Now, is a good summary of the John Friedrich case. It’s part of the Australian Crime Stories series, so it’s likely to be geo-restricted to those with an Australian IP address.
Otherwise, this promo (see below) for a documentary that I don’t think has ever been made sums it all up rather neatly:
I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books