Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon

The Trout Opera Grand in scope, filled with human yearning, arrogance, and development, this 2007 novel captures the long stretch of 100 years in the history of Australia, 1900 to 2000, beginning with the Snowy River flowing free and ending with the staging of the Sydney Olympics.

The boy Wilfred Lampe, the eponymous trout in his scaffolding of wood and wire and his skin of hessian and tin, opens the novel, stumbling about the streets of Dalgety in costume on his way to stage The Trout Opera. The opera never comes off; only later do we realize this is foreshadowing for what is to come to the Snowy River and its ecosystem.¹

“The world’s a stage” for Wilfred as the story progresses, and indeed he is asked to the world stage for the 2000 Olympic Games as the Old Man from Snowy River, a nod to the poem (Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson) that many think represents Australian values and attitudes (e.g., talent, skill, grit, and determination).

But while Wilfred lived his entire life by the Snowy River in the house where he was born in a landscape some considered little changed in one hundred years, the rest of Australia changed unimaginably in that same time. We have glimpses of the lives of others through the voices and experiences of his grand-niece who had so little connection with her family that she felt cast adrift.

In an interview, Condon says that he wrote the book after meeting an eighty-year-old man, Ray Reid, who remembered the great Snowy before the dams were built, which reduced river flow to 1% of its earlier strength. Condon found himself contrasting the beauty of the land with the urban and suburban lives of modern Australians.

The Trout Opera is Condon’s first novel, and he started it without all the skills he needed to finish it. But that very lack of expertise leaves readers with something rare: a story large in scope, size, and heart which encompasses his imaginings about the nature of family, the importance of wealth, indeed, the meaning of life…with Australia and the Snowy Mountains as backdrop. It gives readers glimpses into the national dialogue, the place of Australia in the world, and finally, an understanding of the rich heritage they have to preserve.

One prominent and unforgettable character is Graham Featherstone, nighttime radio host, who listened to the dreams and failures of countless sleepless folks who want to hear the voice of another in the night. Featherstone lets loose one night with his own despair and preoccupations about the state of civility and the loss of a national character, using all the woes he has heard and felt over the years to deliver one long rant. His cynicism and smarts is noted by his listeners, and he is asked to play another role as investigative journalist into the abduction of Old Man Snowy.

That is how he comes to be in the mountains at the source of Snowy, refreshed and relaxed, when the stupendous opening ceremony of the Sydney Games commences. The story has no ending, and indeed, ends with a word that signifies no ending. Life will go on, and it is up to each of us to search for those places and people that make our lives meaningful, wherever we may find them.

¹The Australian Alps in south-eastern Australia, with peaks exceeding 6,600 feet, and are comprised of the Snowy Mountains and the Victoria Alps, and are the only bioregion of Australia where snow falls annually. With the effects of global warming, lower regions are experiencing a change in snowfall. The original damming project began in 1949 and ended in 1974, and decreased flows to the Snowy River by 99%, as measured at Jindabyne. Only later did political opposition and environmental awareness force a reassessment, to increase flows to a target 15% by 2009, and 21% by 2012.

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