Our first battle was birth. I wanted it in, he wanted it out. All that day and half of the next we argued. He said it had nothing to do with him. Later I began to see his point, but at the time it seemed bloody-mindedness and evidence of an inexplicable obstruction—as though he didn’t actually want any memoir ever written. Of course, he didn’t want a memoir written, but that wasn’t his point. Or the point. But I only realised this later, much later, when I came to fear that the beginning of that book was also the end of me.
Too late, in other words.
These days I content myself with reality TV. There is a void, a loneliness that aches and rattles. That frightens. That terrifies me that I should have lived and never did. Reality TV doesn’t have this effect on me.
Back then though, all this was confusing. It was feared by others that I might relapse into literature. By which I mean allegory, symbol, the tropes of time dancing; of books that didn’t have a particular beginning or end, or at least not in that order. By whom I mean the publisher, a man by the unexpected name of Gene Paley. He had been quite specific in this regard: I was to tell a simple story simply, and where it was not simple—when it dealt with the complexities of the spectacular crime—simplify, illustrate by way of anecdote, and never have a sentence that lingered longer than two lines.
It was whispered around the publishing house that Gene Paley was frightened of literature. And not without good reason. For one thing, it doesn’t sell. For another, it can fairly be said that it asks questions that it can’t answer. It astonishes people with themselves, which, on balance, is rarely a good thing. It reminds them that the business of life is failure, and that the failure to know this is true ignorance. Maybe there is transcendence in all this, or wisdom in some of it, but Gene Paley didn’t see himself in the transcendence game. Gene Paley was all for books telling you one or two things over and over again. But preferably only one.
Selling, Gene Paley would say, is telling.
I opened the manuscript again and re-read the opening lines.On 17 May 1983, I signed my application letter for the position of Acting Safety Officer (supervisor) (Acting Class 4/5) at the Australian Safety Organisation, with two words, Siegfried Heidl, and my new life began.
Only much later did I discover that Siegfried Heidl had never existed until that day he signed the letter, so—strictly speaking—it was an honest account. But the past is always unpredictable and, as I was to learn, not his least gift as a con man was that he rarely lied.
Ziggy Heidl’s point of view was that his twelve-thousand-word manuscript—the thin pile of stacked papers on which he would frequently press down with his outstretched hand as if it were a basketball to be bounced and put back into play—said everything that anyone would ever be interested in reading about Ziggy Heidl. My job as a writer, he went on, was simply to sharpen his sentences, and perhaps elaborate here and there a little on his account.
He said this, as he said so much else, with such belief, with such confidence and such conviction, that I found it very difficult to point out, as I had to, that his manuscript made no mention of his childhood, his parents or even, for that matter, his year of birth. His reply has remained with me, even after all these years.
A life isn’t an onion to be peeled, a palimpsest to be scraped back to some original, truer meaning. It’s an invention that never ends.
And when I must have looked struck by his elaborate turn of phrase, Heidl added, as if giving directions to a public toilet: Tebbe. It’s one of his aphorisms.
What he lacked in facts, he made up for with an understated conviction; and what he lacked in conviction he made up for with facts, albeit mostly invented, and rendered all the more plausible because they were so lightly thrown up from an unexpected angle.
The great German installationist, Heidl said. Tomas Tebbe.
I had no idea what a palimpsest might be. Or who Tebbe was, or what an installationist did, or was, and said so. Heidl made no reply. Maybe, as he told me another time, we take from our past and the past of others to make ourselves anew, and the something new is our memory too. Tebbe, whom I only read many years later, put it best: It may be someone else’s blood soaking into the dust, he wrote, but I am that dust.
I looked up.
Out of interest, I said, whereabouts in Germany did you grow up?
Germany? Ziggy Heidl said, looking out the window. I never went there until I was twenty-six. I told you. I grew up in South Australia.
Your accent is German.
Roger that, Ziggy Heidl said. And when he turned his fleshy face back to me I tried not to stare at the small muscle in his otherwise puffy cheek that twitched when he smiled, a knot of tautness amidst the slackness, a single tight muscle pulsing in and out.
I know it’s odd, but there you are—I grew up with German-speaking parents and no one to play with. But I was happy. Write that.
He was smiling.
His smile: an undertow of sinister complicity.
What? I said.
Write: I was happy.
That terrible smile. That twitching cheek.
Boom-boom, it silently went. Boom-boom.2
We were working in a publishing executive’s corner office in a publishing company’s headquarters in Port Melbourne. Perhaps it had been the office of an editorial director or a sales manager, recently retired or lately sacked. Who knows? We were never told, but the office made Ziggy Heidl feel important and that was important, and if I felt embarrassed, that wasn’t. It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquor cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics
, customer fulfilment
, and supply chain alignment
had connected like tightening coils in a hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent of, say, a Red Army canteen in Kabul, circa 1979.
And like the Red Army then, publishing was entering a crisis of stagnation not yet understood as either a crisis or as terminal. And beneath where the publishing people sat were so many little holes being bored by redundancies slowly coming together into one large sink hole through which, a few years hence, the several floors of the publishing house would suddenly and unexpectedly fall until they landed with a crash and compressed into just one floor. Then that floor, in turn, would begin to shrink as a rising sea of start-ups, finance companies and net businesses flooded over the publisher’s office space—an encroaching ocean of disruption
—until the floor was now only half a floor, and on that vanishing island books were now only content and writers only content providers, sandbag fillers, but of an ever lower and lower caste, if such a thing were possible. All of which may suggest I write with some nostalgia, that the Port Melbourne office had charm or character.
If it was bookcase lined, the bookcases were, on closer examination, like the world of publishing then, dispiriting. The shelving was particleboard covered with a hokey teak veneer, an uncomfortably faecal brown, more plasticised than varnished. And the books! The books that house—the then mighty Schlegel TransPacific (or as it was variously known, TransPac or STP)—published were the only books on those shelves. Books on chocolate, gardening, furniture, military history, tired celebrities; tedious memoirs and pulp novels—a small part of the profits from which paid for the publication of the few books that I thought books were—novels, essays, poems, stories—none of which lived on those glossy shelves. In addition to these and the cookbooks, pictorials, and reference books that still had a market, were the collected works of Jez Dempster, each Jez Dempster tome a cinder block blinged with the words JEZ DEMPSTER picked out in great gold lettering. What junk they were. How dispiriting they seemed. It was my first intimation that my idea of books, of writing, was a very small and largely unsuccessful subset of what at STP was known—in a cod-craft mystery-like way—as the trade
explained all things. While phrases such as “that’s how it is
in the trade” or “the trade’s tight
” told you nothing, they were understood to explain everything. And from my first day I understood that the trade
somehow thought my telling of Heidl’s story was far more real a book than the real book I had until that time thought I had been writing, that real book being my own unfinished first novel.
This made no sense to me, but then the trade
made no sense. It made no sense, for example, that Heidl’s memoirs were—for reasons I never could divine—secret. No one was meant to know at the publishing house, other than the handful working with us on the book—Gene Paley himself, though as publisher he left most of the work to the editor, Pia Carnevale, and one or two others. We were to tell everyone else we were co-editing an anthology of mediaeval Westphalian folk verse. I am not sure whose lie this was—Ziggy Heidl’s or Gene Paley’s then, or mine later—but it was as impressive as it was ludicrous. Why such a project would be undertaken within the house was, to my knowledge, never questioned. In a line of work full of perplexity, it was just one more oddity—but wasn’t that just how it was in the trade
The furniture matched the tone of shoddy bombast—the executive’s faux Edwardian Laminex desk behind which Ziggy Heidl made his unceasing calls was too big, while the conference table at which I worked was too small for its real purpose of hosting meetings. The slightly soiled tub chairs in which we sat were upholstered in a nylon jacquard beset by a salmon and grey weave. When your fingers touched the fabric, it felt half-melted. The tormented colouring for no good reason always put me in mind of a Francis Bacon painting. I felt as if I were sitting in a muted scream.3
Gene would like to see you, Kif, said a young woman at our office door. Needs you to sign a contract.
Gene Paley wanted no such thing—I’d signed my contract on the very first day already so long ago it was hard to believe it had been only Monday and it was now just Wednesday. Gene Paley, I knew, wanted to know how it was going.
Slowly, I said as I stood before Gene Paley in his office suite, while he stared down at tractor feed spreadsheets papering his desk. He just won’t give
. . . detail.
Vague stories about being born in a remote South Australian mining town called Jaggamyurra to German parents.
That’s it? Gene Paley said, still not looking up.
More or less.
The con? As I was saying, he’s not a criminal celebrity for no reason. Seven hundred million dollars. It’s the biggest con job in Australian history. Has he explained how he did it?
Mmm, Gene Paley said and fell silent. Much of his conversation was punctuated with this slight downward falling murmur, as if every sentence were a judgement of failure. That, or the repetition of the phrase, As I was saying. His whole manner of speech was unusual, clipped sentences delivered quickly then slowly, such that he often sounded like a dying telex machine.
Good—, I said, but I could hear myself faltering.
On one of the spreadsheets, as wide as a small suburban road, Gene Paley made some precise marks, the wet black ink of his fountain pen vivid against the pale blue and white striped paper and ash blur of dot matrix printed numbers.Good stories
, I said. Just a little . . .
As I was saying, you can write, Gene Paley said, eyes continuing to track the numbers arrayed below. But we need him to talk.
His eyes were oddly hooded, and that, and his small face, his beak of a nose, the suggestion of a powdery odour, the sense he might bite deeply and unexpectedly, all put me in mind of Suzy’s pet Indian ringneck parrot that missed no opportunity to bite me.
I need him to tell me something, I said. He’s—he’s
just not interested in the book.
Gene Paley raised his eyes and caught mine with an unforgiving stare.
Mmm, he said, and with a quizzical gesture he held out at arm’s length his oversize fountain pen, as elaborate and nonsensical as a piece of chromed agricultural pipe, and dropped it on the several kilometres of numbers on the spreadsheets below. Decades of living through numbers such as these—the numbers
printed, the numbers
sold in, the numbers
sold through, returned, and remaindered, the numbers
he gave away as margin to booksellers, the numbers
he lied about to other publishers and journalists, hellish real numbers
, dreamt-of numbers
, true numbers
, false numbers
lost to rapacious book chains, numbers
clawed back off witless authors and vainglorious agents, the despair and beauty and sheer alchemy of numbers
, our numbers
, bad numbers
, good numbers
, even, for God’s sake, numbers
—all these innumerable numbers had over time honed in Gene Paley a sensitivity so great it verged on a sixth sense: to the possibility of profit and the terror of loss. And that sense was even then twitching with concern, perhaps fear.
Your contract is not just to write, he said, his voice still kindly but somehow firmer—somehow resolute. It is to write with him for us. Your job is to make him talk. Without him talking there is no book. Without a book at the end of six weeks, there is no money for you. None. No. Yes?
No, I replied. Yes.
No, Gene Paley said. None.
Yes, I replied. No.
As he talked, Gene Paley folded the spreadsheets into a neat rectangular mound, stood up, and took off his shirt without shame or concern to reveal a white singlet, slack on his scrawny white body.
They say there are only three rules for writing a book, Gene Paley said in what felt an anecdote greasy with retelling. Only no one can remember what they are.
Copyright © 2018 by Richard Flanagan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.