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Matthew Condon: The Trout Opera

The novel opens with two retired lawyers, sitting on the porch of their residence, watching a brown trout slowly making its away across the bridge over the Snowy River in Dalgety, New South Wales. The trout is, in fact, the six-year old Wilfred Lampe, dressed as a brown trout for his appearance in The Trout Opera, a production put on by his school under the direction of their teacher, the wonderfully named Mr. Schweigestill (it means Be Quiet Silence), where he will be lured by Queen Lure. The production turns out to be too ambitious but Wilfred does enjoy it. We then meet Wilfred ninety-three years later. He has spent his entire life in Dalgety and is still living on his own, though not without some difficulty. We also meet two slightly sinister and cynical civil servants known only as Driver (as he drives the car) and Passenger who, we learn, have been sent to Dalgety, to get the participation of Wilfred in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As he will be one hundred when the Olympics open, it has been decided that he should be present. Unfortunately, just about as the two officials arrive, after they have finally tracked him down, Wilfred abandons his tea, all prepared, and goes off into his garden to look for a washing machine part, trips over and knocks himself out. The two men are left both to look after him (he is helicoptered to a hospital) and wondering what to do with their star, whom they may be considered to have kidnapped. Wilfred meanwhile thinks he has died and gone to heaven.

Wilfred had a strange sister, Astrid. As a child, she would often go off somewhere for a while, causing consternation to her parents and the locals (though not to her brother, who was well aware of her antics). Wilfred did not marry but she did. Wilfred’s only surviving relative, though he is probably unaware of this, is Astrid’s granddaughter, Aurora Beck. Aurora had worked in a café for working men when she met Wynter. Wynter, who we later learn was a victim of child abuse, is both a drug dealer and robber, who makes a habit of stealing from shops and banks across Australia, to finance his drug habit and dealing. When he comes into Aurora’s café, she is taken with him and soon joins up with him. However, he abuses her, forcing her into prostitution to earn money. Eventually, she has had enough and steals his car, money and drugs and heads off to Sydney. There she meets another drug dealer called Tick, who was formerly a prostitute called Julia but is now a man again. Wynter is, of course, on her trail but so are Driver and Passenger, as they feel that she, as Wilfred’s only surviving relative, can authorise Wilfred’s appearance.

We get a very long but mixed story in his book. We learn about Wilfred’s early life – his father and grandfather, but also his early love for Dorothea. We learn that he is and will always remain an outdoors man, loving trout fishing, eager to explore the Snowy Rover back to its source. Like his father he works for the Crank family but the relationship is not always happy. He struggles but gets by. In many respects, this part can be seen as a tribute to an Australia that has now been lost, as we arrive at the twenty-first century. Two key things happen in Dalgety, one of which changes a lot for Wilfred. The first is that Dalgety is considered as the site for the capital (after Melbourne). In the end, the decision goes to Canberra. Not much is made of this but it is discussed. More important for Wilfred is that the Snowy River is dammed for hydroelectricity. It is considered a major engineering feat but, for Wilfred, it is a tragedy as the river is no longer what it was.

But we are also following the Australia of now. There is Wynter, a vicious drug dealer who will (and does) cheat anybody, whose travels, in search of Aurora but also in search of drugs and money, we follow. There is Tick, gay prostitute, junkie and AIDS victim but who has a heart. We follow Aurora herself, fleeing Wynter but trying to make something of her life. We see the Olympic officials, whom Condon savages. We also follow another character, Graham Featherstone, a failed DJ who may or may not have hit on two major news stories but may not be able to take full advantage of his scoops. In short we have a complex mesh of intertwining stories, which give a fascinating though partial portrait of Australia but, even at well over 700 pages, is a very good read.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Random House