“In an age where everything can mean anything, perhaps it is only possible to exist as a cipher, as a thin, fragile outline of a hope etched across an infinity of madness.” (309) Flanagan provides his answer – in the poetry of permanence, his work has the kind of humanistic transcendence which will reward the reader with both beauty and meaning through many re-readings.
reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Death of a River Guide
by Richard Flanagan
Pan Macmillan, Paperback, Jan 2004, ISBN: 0330364758, A$24.00
“Those shadows, those greasy, slippery shadows, they dance before me now like some cabaret of lost souls of slaughtered animals performing a burlesque in Hell, and amidst the moist snouts of possums and wallabies I can see one more soul depart its human body.” Richard Flanagan’s first novel, recently re-issued in Australia by Macmillan, is more than just a precursor of his phenomenal Commonwealth Prize winning Gould’s Book of Fish. The story sits somewhere amongst those greasy, slippery shadows which constitute the extended world that we all inhabit. As the story opens, Aljaz Cosini, the narrator and protagonist of Death of a River Guide, lies drowning in Tasmania’s Franklin river, “looking up through aerated water at the slit in the rocks.” Cosini has been granted visions, in which he sees life in flashes – both recollection, and a link to the collective consciousness of his people – that reveal its meaning. Flanagan’s prose is deft and magical, moving with little effort between Cosini’s immediate circumstances – the physical and emotional pain that attends his drowning, the moments leading up to the point of his entrapment, and the progression of his life, and the lives of his parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents. Always reaching for the largest context, the deepest meaning, Flanagan takes us away from rationality without ever calling upon mysticism, magical realism, or any kind of cinematic tricks:
And the rational mind can only reason against that knowledge: that the spirit of the sleeping and the dying in the rainforest roam everywhere, see everything; that we know a great deal more about ourselves than we normally care to admit, except at the great moments of truth in our life, in love and hate, at birth and death. Beyond these moments our life seems as if it is one great voyage away from teh truths we all encompass, our past and our future, what we were and what we will return to being.(9)
As with Gould’s Book of Fish, Death of a River Guide is deceptively easy to read. The characters are believable and richly developed, and the forward thrust of the story makes the book difficult to put down. We know the outcome in advance, but anticipate and wait for the denouement as breathlessly as if this were a murder mystery. How did Cosini come to be trapped in the Franklin? Cowardly, lonely, in poor health, hungry, escaping from the things he’s lost and those he loves, Cosini wonders “who is this drowning? (308) The discovery of Cosini is the discovery of ourselves – an ambitious odyssey through time and place – Aboriginal Australia, Italy, England, China, Yugoslavia – from the early 19th century to present day.
The Franklin itself is beautifully characterised, with its changing forests:
Wet and pungent comes the smell of the damp black earth to my nostrils; of the forest dying, to be reborn as fecund rot and fungi, small and waxy, large and luminous; to be reborn as moss and myrtle seedlings, minuscule and myriad; as Huon pine springs, forcing their way through the crumbling damp decay, forked and knowing as a water diviner’s stick; as the celery top saplings, looking as if a market gardener had planted them there; as the small hardwater ferns and old scrubbing-brush-topped pandanni.
And there are moments throughout the book which are so intensely moving, the reader feels like he or she has slipped under Cosini’s skin and is witnessing his or her own history and loss – the violation of Black Pearl, the loss of baby Jemma with its image of puffy ankle and yellow bootie, Couta Ho’s spirit and immense sadness, Aunt Ellie’s visions and memories, the convict Ned Quade, Cosini’s cigar smoking midwife Maria Magdalena Svevo, Cosini’s father Harry’s witness of his father Boy’s death, and the love stories, Harry and Sonja, Ellie and Reg, Cosini and Couta – all beautiful and horrible, interwoven with the history – the large migrations and small mining towns – out of which they grow. There are moments of comedy too, such as Cosini’s visions of Australian animals telling each other stories. This is a novel full of many lives and many stories, all converging and uniting on the point of Cosini’s death.
“In an age where everything can mean anything, perhaps it is only possible to exist as a cipher, as a thin, fragile outline of a hope etched across an infinity of madness.” (309) Flanagan provides his answer – in the poetry of permanence, his work has the kind of humanistic transcendence which will reward the reader with both beauty and meaning through many re-readings. Relatively small in output as his oeuvre is, Richard Flanagan is one of the greatest of modern writers. His work is consistently astonishing, original, moving, rooted deeply in the Tasmanian soil out of which it derives, but universal in its power to move and change the reader.
For more information visit: Death of a River Guide