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Denis Johnson: Fiskadoro

This is a post-apocalyptic novel but, if you are expecting a Mad Max shoot-’em up type of book, a quick look at the acknowledgements, which include Joseph Campbell, Ernest Becker and Bruno Bettelheim, show that this is going to be more myth than massacre. It is set sometime in the future after some form of, presumably, nuclear war, that has put humans back before the Industrial Revolution, into a period that is called The Quarantine. The action takes place in the Florida Keys which is, apparently, one of the places to have survived the war, though we know Cuba survived because they pick up Cuban radio. Key West is now called Twicetown as two dud bombs fell there during the War.

Though not Riddley Walker with its difficult language, the language is not straightforward English but English mixed with Spanish though comprehensible enough without too much effort. Fiskadoro (from the Spanish word fisgador, meaning harpooner) is one of the characters, a teenager who finds a clarinet and asks Mr. Cheung to teach him how to play it. Mr. Cheung is the manager of the Miami Symphony Orchestra, which barely exists any more, except in Mr. Cheung’s head. He also runs a book club, to read the few remaining books, including Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises. Much of the novel is about how they reconnect to the past, as there seems to have been a collective amnesia. Mr. Cheung’s grandmother, one of the oldest survivors, is one source, though her memories are not always clear. As she can’t speak, we only learn about them from her internal recollections. She was a Vietnamese refugee, so her memories are often about her experience as a refugee. They do find remnants of the past society, from the dud bomb to car parts, from old records to old photocopiers.

Johnson skillfully shows the difference between the three main characters. The grandmother, of course, represents the past, with her memories that she cannot utter. Fiskadoro represents the future, particularly when he is captured by the swamp people and they give him drugs which make him lose his memory. He has to relearn everything but will become the man who does not have the baggage of the past but only knowledge for the future in him. Cheung is between the two, trying to recapture the past but, at the made time, struggling towards the future, whatever it may be. Johnson shows the balancing act between the three very well and even if the outlook is bleak – Koran-bearing Cubans – it is a well-told story.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Knopf