It occurs to me, reading John Gimlette’s Theatre of Fish, that there are certain prerequisites for being an effective travel writer. One must be, obviously, fairly peripatetic in nature, and interested in the exotic and new. One must also be very accepting, non-judgmental, and open to a wide range of differing attitudes. It also seems to help if one has an unrestrained, completely irreverent, and somewhat bizarre sense of humor. Mmm . . . and a heavy dose of fearlessness. That helps.
Theatre of Fish is about Newfoundland and Labrador, two places, in Gimlette’s rendering, that not only seem unwilling to be part of North America, but also seem to be reconsidering their relationship with the sidereal universe. Like all good travel books, it is not only about the places but also about the people, their history, attitudes, frailties and virtues. Gimlette has an ancestral tie to the area: his great-grandfather, Eliot Curwen, explored Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1890s in the company of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, known as “Grenfell of Labrador,” one of those irrepressible characters that seem to be produced in the British Isles in great abundance and then hurriedly exported to almost anywhere else. Gimlette characterizes the adventure, and Grenfell’s kind of adventurism, as something fundamentally Victorian, a blend, as he puts it, of “grandiose altruism, Christian athleticism, and Boy’s Own adventure.” Gimlette also has a tie through his school, Mostyn House, still owned by the Grenfells when he attended; Mostyn seems a suitable breeding ground indeed for those aforementioned eccentrics. The scary part of it is that Grenfell was by no means unique in the history of the region.
And there is the land itself. Newfoundland is known to its inhabitants simply as “the Rock,” which seems suitable given that it is the easternmost point in North America and faces nothing but the north Atlantic, not a reassuring neighbor. It exists as a part of Euro-American history simply because of fish, specifically cod. Cod, as far as the English, French, and Portuguese were concerned, was the whole reason for Newfoundland’s existence. Cod was even used as currency. The fisheries were so important, in fact, that for a large part of its history, settlement was forbidden by the English government, which wasn’t something that was readily accepted by the inhabitants. Settlements are still tied firmly to the coast, a couple of cities and hordes of outports that were until very recently, and in some cases still are completely isolated for the six months of the year that the region is frozen solid. Newfoundland and Labrador, although at roughly the same latitude as northern France and the British Isles, are on the Iceberg Alley, down which drift the bergs that have been shed by Greenland until they finally melt or break up, which makes navigation more than a little hazardous. The most famous victim, of course, was the Titanic, but even taking the ferry from St. John’s to the mainland is not without risk. The interior is simply considered a heavily forested no-man’s land, inhabited by moose and even less desirable denizens. Even more desolate is Labrador, most of which doesn’t even have trees.
The people, a somewhat arbitrary mix of English and Irish criminals, Portuguese fishermen, a few French who may be largely apocryphal at this point, and English merchants and do-gooders, have historically felt a much stronger tie to the old country (whichever it was) than to Canada. (Someone came up with the fact that there are something over sixty distinct dialects in Newfoundland alone, which points up the heterogeneity of the settlers and the isolation of the settlements.) In fact, when Newfoundland finally joined Canada in 1949, it was a matter of great controversy. Poverty has been a way of life for centuries, and the UI (which we in America call “unemployment”) is what keeps the economy going, especially now that the fishing grounds have been disastrously depleted and fishing is regulated.
If this all makes the book sound depressing, it’s not. Credit it in part to Gimlette’s appreciation of those qualities that seem to have become genetic traits among Newfoundlanders — adaptability, practicality, a complete disregard of social conventions — and in part to his way of telling the stories that make up this book. He creates a constant interweaving of history and the present, stories told by fishermen, politicians (who have a reputation in Newfoundland slightly below what they hold in the U.S., if you can imagine such a thing), merchants, and chance acquaintances, highlighted by the exploits of the characters who figure in the history of the area, including his great-grandfather. (Who by his account was one of the more reality-based figures in the history of the region.)
It’s not all pretty — in fact, most of it isn’t very pretty at all: the extermination of the natives, carried out with great energy by the English, and the abuse of boys by the local Catholic clergy, which foreshadowed the wider scandals in the Church that came to light later, are only two of the low points. The overarching theme is poverty and transience — dwellings, built more for ease of reconstruction than for anything else, are blown away in the Atlantic storms, or simply moved to a new location as conditions warrant. The history is as much of stupidity and greed as anything else, and a complete disregard for consequences which has somehow left a residue of tolerance (within limits), sturdiness, and survival. Gimlette manages to make it appealing.
It’s not a book to devour. It’s best taken in reasonable doses, because it does cause one to think, although sometimes the thoughts are only tangentially related to the book (Gimlette mentions that Newfoundland is the world’s seventeenth largest island; it’s almost impossible to avoid trying to figure out what the sixteen larger islands are.) Impressionistic, harshly realistic, often surrealistic, Gimlette’s narrative is like a collage that gradually builds a picture of a place that sounds fascinating, although one wonders if the reality would live up to the portrait, as it so often did not for the adventurers whose stories Gimlette relates. Nevertheless, I think I’d like to visit.
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)