Friday, February 24, 2006


Newfoundland Notes: Fish Conspiracy Operatives in The Frozen North

O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified! (Bill Shakespeare)

CLIFFIE’S NOTES ON Theatre Of Fish by John Gimlette, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2005

PLOT SUMMARY: Gee, I guess there isn’t one, exactly. A British lawyer who claims to be writing under his own name follows the route travelled by his great-grandfather, Dr. Eliot Curwen, around the towns of Newfoundland and on into the Labrador Peninsula. Gramps worked there for some time easing the suffering of the locals, evidently with mixed results. AS USUAL with literature written by the landscum who think they know something about FISH, it is highly entertaining to dope out where the ironies in this book truly lie. What is NOT USUAL AT ALL is the funky double-edged writing style of this author. There are many books and movies out there that read one way to a shaved monkey and quite another way to us, the landfish.
The astounding thing about this book is that Gimlette APPEARS TO HAVE WRITTEN IT THIS WAY INTENTIONALLY.

DON’T BELIEVE ME? Allow me to enlighten you with a few of his amazingly ambiguous quotes:

Page xix, under a reproduction of a Newfoundland postage stamp showing a heap of slaughtered operatives: "Poetically, if not geographically, the province owes its existence to fish…Half-mythical, half-piscatorial, it remained a trade secret for the next sixty-one years." Most of the important stuff going on there today is STILL a trade secret, thank you.

Page xx: "The colony’s owners – the great "Fishocracy…" NEED I SAY MORE?

Same page: "[A] Fish has always been at the heart of politics, the ruling genius." (I added the word "A" to the front of that sentence because otherwise it is ungrammatical.)

Page 27: "Occasionally, these creatures were seducers, like the half-fish, half-woman that went for Richard Whitbourne…His servant stepped in, cracked the thing over the head with an oar, and it swam off." Here we arrive at the very heart of the reason this model had to be discontinued by the front office. We just lost too many operatives this way with very little to show, especially once the shaved monkeys started in on their Age of Enlightenment. But I think it’s a testament to the greater wisdom of our R&D labs that even hundreds of years later, the mermaid’s power to seduce is still a legend. When P.T. Barnum displayed the front of a dead monkey stitched to the back of a dead fish and called the frightful object a ‘mermaid,’ hordes of people pressed their dollars on him so they could take a look. THEY WOULD DO THE SAME TODAY.

Page 49: "His lawyers, on the other hand, were struggling with a deadly riddle: when is a fish not a fish?" IF YOU ONLY KNEW! MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Page 56: "…But mostly people sang...The boy was always a fisherman. Sometimes he got his girl but, usually, he drowned. For some reason, everyone found this funny and we all laughed although we couldn’t think why." YOU AND I KNOW that the laughter is started by the operatives in the audience, and they find it funny, ladies, because the boy who "drowns" gets a much more suitable girl than the one who returns ‘safely’ to dry land. OK, she has gills and she doesn’t cook, but before long HE WON’T MIND. Most amusing of all to me is this: I really think that on some level – a very dim level to be sure -- even the humans in the audience sense and appreciate what is going on here.

Page 74: "…Indentured fish-slaves." I can think about the multi-layered meanings of THAT phrase for HOURS.

Page 81: "To his friends, he was ‘The Codfather’…" Hoo boy.

Same page: "There was a tendency among politicians of all stripes…to put the interests of the fishermen – who were voters – above the interests of the cod, who weren’t." Here we see one of the obvious, inherent flaws in the Naked Ape political process, but would a Naked Ape reading that passage have any idea what he was looking at? NOT LIKELY.

Page 100: "After the failure of the early plantations, the fish took control of the law." IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE. But again, I’d be amazed if Gimlette knew what he was saying when he put this down. Because if he did, he'd be ONE OF OUR OPERATIVES and he would be KILLED and EATEN for publishing a book full of security leaks the size of the floodgates on the Hoover Dam.

This list reaches less than a third of the way into the book, ladies. I’m sorry to say that most of the middle and the end of the travelogue strays far ashore into landscum political boringness. This includes a bunch of hairsplitting about what difference it makes to be Innu, British, French, Beothuk, Inuit or Canadian. YOU ALL LOOK THE SAME TO US. Of course there are quite striking differences, let’s be real. On one level, this book charts the destruction of a number of Fish-friendly, utterly sustainable cultures like that of the Innu by competing interests, in the form of Basques, Brits, the French and various other groups practicing things like gill-netting. On the other hand, the book charts the Fish invasion into areas of Europe and North America that NEVER WOULD HAVE HAPPENED without the intervention of commercial fishing and people like Clarence Birdseye. Gimlette takes note of all this without ever totally losing sight of the ones who really matter: the Cod. We see that as the Cod decline, the fortunes of Newfoundland shrivel up and blow away. This is an incredibly ambitious message for what is, on the surface, just a travel book.

I want you to remember that message, ladies: IF THE FISH AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY. Gimlette even demonstrates this for us by way of contrast, describing on page 133 an amazing "natural festival" that the locals call "The Miracle Of The Caplin." The Caplins’ yearly love feast, still celebrated only because the Caplins have not yet been driven underground by overfishing, brings out every other species out of their hidey-holes to share in the fun. Even the landscum are invited. For a brief moment Gimlette draws away from the depressing vista of slapped-together lean-to huts and the drunken self-destruction of his own species, and lets us see the Whales, Dolphins, Cod, and Puffins meeting for the big party of the year. Even in this come-one-come-all setting, the landscum can only seem to stand at the shore and stare. Then, unfortunately, Gimlette goes back to human affairs, which seem to truly interest him and which is the strongest evidence for you new readers that this man is NOT an operative. (But, gee, maybe we should sign him up, huh?)

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I could hardly put it down.


Dateline: Atlantic and Pacific Herring Shoals

Nov. 10th, 2005: National Geographic reveals that Herrings in both the Atlantic and Pacific communicate within the shoal by expelling gas from their rear ends. This startling finding first appeared in Biology Letters, a UK publication of some note. HOW DID YOU THINK WE COMMUNICATE, BY SEMAPHORE? I mean, give me a break.

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