Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan, is the story of Aljaz Cosini, who, while trapped and drowning under the waters of the Franklin River, remembers episodes from his life and visualises scenes from the lives of his forebears. It is rich with compelling descriptions of Tasmanian wilderness and with moving stories of past generations.
Death of a River Guide was Flanagan’s first novel, coming after four non-fiction books.
It was reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing.”
Richard Flanagan, highly decorated novelist and winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, was born in Longford, Tasmania. His early novels have been said to “rank with the finest fiction out of Australia since the heyday of Patrick White”(Kirkus reviews).
As a young man Flanagan kayaked down the Franklin River many times. In the early eighties he became trapped under the water and nearly drowned. (From an interview with the ABC’s Chris Wisbey , quoted at the back of the Picador 1994 edition.)
An incident similar to this forms the framework for Death of a River Guide. In the opening chapters, guide Aljaz Cosini (we are instructed early to pronounce the first name as ‘Ali-ush’) has become trapped under the waters of the Franklin. The reader has to wait until almost the end of the book (see below) before learning how this happened.
During his final moments, caught beneath pounding water, lungs burning in pain, Aljaz watches light through a slit in the rock above him and remembers the beginning of the expedition and episodes from his own life. He also finds himself freed form the distractions of the rational mind and able to review, with deep insight, the lives of other generations of his family. It is not clear whether he is having visions or hallucinations.
He visualises scenes from his relationship with half-Chinese woman, Couta Ho, from the lives of his Yugoslavian mother and his mixed race father, and from his ancestors.
He has gained a strange epiphanic access to a collective unconscious or to some source of omnipotent knowledge. Either way, he finds himself connected with a deep knowledge of “the truths we all encompass” (p9).
A Terrible Beauty
This is a beautiful book. Flanagan’s writing about the Tasmanian wilderness is lushly poetic. It has been said to have “an almost surreal power” (Vivian Smith in the Times Literary Supplemement) and to be ‘compelling’ (The Age).
“Then, breaking forth from a bizarre low angle, a ray of light shining up the gorge illuminating a world otherwise cast in darkness by the black rain clouds above. The water reflects a white brilliance. … The Franklin River. A world pure and whole and complete unto itself” (p14).
This country is close to Flanagan’s soul. He is not simply giving us a display of his research, or knowledge or experience. This is passionate, transcendent writing.
The writing is lyrical, but it is also sensory and precise. Descriptions are detailed in a way that feels completely accurate. Flanagan has been here. He has an intimate knowledge of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers and has been walking and kayaking there since he was young (see ABC interview).
“… the wild rivers, the rainforested rivers, … the damp and the humid closeness and the heavy sweet smells of the peat-created wet earth, among the myrtles, craggy and towering and bearded with hanging festoons of lichens, cracked and scabbed with fluorescent orange fungi, among the scented leatherwoods, among the pungent lime-green sassafras … among the crazed pandannis, emaciated elongated trunks betopped with pineapple heads of thrusting leaves, among the celery top pine and the lemon-tasting whitey wood and the spiralling native laurels” (p41).
For Flanagan, the Tasmanian wilderness is not simply decorative. In 1985, while a student and before writing his first novel, Flanagan produced a book of photographs of the Franklin River. He titled it, A Terrible Beauty. In Death of a River Guide south west Tasmania has a power that I would describe as sublime. The glorious beauty of nature is mixed with something more terrifying. It inspires awe: a deep knowledge that this world is not only exquisite, it is also dangerous.
Or perhaps more importantly, it is indifferent to us. Aljaz loves:
“the way the mountains and the rivers and the rainforest care nothing for him. They feel him to be neither part of them nor separate from them, neither want him to be there not want him to go, neither love nor hate him, neither envy nor disparage his efforts, see him neither good nor bad. They have no more opinion of him than of a fallen stick or an entire river. He feels naked, without need, without desire. He feels enclosed by the walls of the mountain and the rainforest. He feels, for the first time in such a long time, good” (p19).
In an interview with the ABC’s Chris Wisbey, quoted at the back of the Picador 1994 edition, Flanagan says that on Franklin trips “you come to terms with your own insignificance. … the natural world … forces us to face up to our own fears and insecurities and inadequacies.”
Mythical, Spiritual Power
For Flanagan, finding unity with wild places lies at the centre of spiritual well-being. The wild country brings Aljaz “a peace at the heart of an emptiness” (p19).
The fundamental importance of the river lies in its unity — with the rest of the universe, with the whole of time. The river is:
“… writing its past and prophesying its future in massive gorges slicing through mountains and cliffs so undercut they call them verandahs, and in eroded boulders and beautiful gilded eggs of river stones and in beaches of river gravel that shift year to year, flood to flood, and in that gravel that once was rounded river rock that once was eroded boulder that once was undercut cliff that once was mountain and which will be again” (p64).
While episodes from the river trip are spaced throughout the book, the reader has to wait until almost the end before learning how Aljaz became trapped under the water. Here the writing is sharp, fast paced and vivid and completely enthralling.
“A scream. Then cries. ‘Help! Help!’ Short, urgent, desperate. Aljaz and the Cockroach drop their heavy barrels and start running, brushing aside scrub and confused punters with their gearbags as they force their bodies back up the steep gravel slide, as they climb up the small rock chimney, as they run along the track. ‘He can’t hang on much longer!'” (p275).
While there are hints of this in earlier chapters, the most fast-paced and suspenseful action comes in the ninth of ten chapters. In a way this is a shame. Lovers of adventure will find these passages thrilling, and everyone will enjoy the way Flanagan writes about the immense power of the river. But I fear that some would not read this far. As in some of his other books, Flanagan has thrown together two very different kinds of story. The book as a whole is coherent and immensely satisfying, but I wonder if all readers will agree.
Flanagan is a careful and close observer of people. He is a masterful artist when it comes to the speech and thought patterns, the deep taciturnity of Tasmania’s country people, especially the men. When Harry must report his father’s death to fellow loggers, the exchange is brief.
In contrast to what is said, Harry’s thoughts about his punt are knowledgeable, intimate and detailed.
“one pound sterling the foot of punt … and his boat fifteen of the King’s finest for old gum, beamy as buggery for heavy loads and square-sterned and square-bowed for riding the rapids” (p41).
The story of Harry being rowed 45 miles down the Franklin and Gordon Rivers with a severed thumb, the pain and exhaustion of the rowers, Harry’s own all-consuming agony are wrenchingly convincing.
The contemporary reader is probably in no position to judge the accuracy of the way Flanagan’s characters speak and think, but it certainly feels authentic. You sense Flanagan has a great familiarity with this world.
Flanagan does not shy away from pain. A central motif for the book is a tear-stained bedspread. Aljaz’s visions are no ecstatic reverie. He is in agony. The stories he relives are almost unremittingly dark.
On page two Aljaz makes it clear that life for him is a violent expulsion from the enclosing circle of the womb, in agony and indignity, only unable to scream because he is being garrotted by the cord. His own father described him as “damaged goods” and he is rejected by his peers as “a wog” (p89). For much of the book he focuses on “ bad things and the evil things and the wrong things” (p40). These include miscarriage, cot death, bullying and abuse, the hellish lives of convicts, drudgery, death from painful disease, agonising injury, rape, gruesome murder and cannibalism.
This is Flanagan’s Tasmania. Its history is pain and deprivation and cruelty. For Flanagan the Tasmanian gothic seems not so much an intellectual or aesthetic construction, based on a selective view of our history and environment. He seems to feel it represents the soul of our island.
The west coast is a place of “black clouds” (p187), full of “the strange flotsam of deflated dreams and broken hopes” (p188).
Reviewer Vivian Smith, focused on the book’s stories of cannibalism and rape and the destruction of Tasmania’s environment, saying the book presents “a grim picture of what has happened to Tasmania.”
Of course, Flanagan has a deep love for our island. In 2004, he spoke of Tasmania as “wounded …dreamlike, and, ultimately, … undivineable’, of ‘its intense passion and the mesmerising hold it has over its people … the tragedy, the hope and the possibility of this island that broke with the past.” (In a speech at the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Richard Wastell, 7th October 2004.)
But he seems (and possibly he would be the first to agree with this) deeply ambivalent about the modern, commercial world. In this book, the world beyond the river is ludicrous, garish, inhospitable. It is characterised as:
“weekend papers and women’s magazines and TV talk shows and the talk radio full of what was now the fashion and what wasn’t, of who was changing things and who had power and who was in the process of losing power” (p39).
The clerks and teachers in Aljaz’s background ‘had snobbery as a dog had fleas” (p53).
Human companionship, in humble homes, provides shelter from this belligerent world beyond the door; love provides comfort from pain and seeks only to make life bearable. And this shelter is precarious. Love is spoiled and lost through pain and bereavement.
Through Aljaz, Flanagan presents us with a dark view of Tasmanians, and of visitors to our island. The manager of the river tours is venal and stupid. The people they meet on the river are foolish, self-centred and deluded, spending their time posturing and failing to connect with the rhythms of the land they dance in.
The people the guides are escorting come from an outside world where they are accountants and doctors. Occasionally they are allowed to be decent, but Aljaz’s focus is on their other qualities. They are “boring and lazy and inclined to foolhardiness” (p154), exemplified by Derek, gauche and arrogant, with eyes “suggesting both an emptiness and a certain greed” (p21) .
With its structure based on Aljaz’s visions, the novel has a magical realism embedded in its structure. There are other elements of wonder, not diminished by the fact that they have a natural explanation: a blackwood tree has grown through a railway carriage, lifting it into the air, rain breaks through a church roof, becoming stained and looking like blood.
For Flanagan, the deep pain of life is often based on schism. Sadness comes from separation, from one’s past, from one’s heritage, from the natural world.
Aljaz’s ancestors live in denial of convict or indigenous backgrounds. They are deeply ashamed of “an unspeakable, untameable shadow” (p65). An Aboriginal woman tries to deny her heritage, claiming to be “good decent Catholic people. White Catholic people” (p202).
On the river, the essence of the inadequacy of the guests is their deep separation from the natural world. These people do not understand the country they go through and have fetishized the river. They are incapable of connecting with it in a meaningful way. They scream at leeches and resent small hardships. The country frightens them.
Despite their protestations that the country is beautiful, the guests feel:
“a growing unease with this weird alien environment … Wherever they turn there is no escape: always more rainforest, and more of it irreducible to a camera shot. No plasterboard walls or coffee tables are to be found to act as borders, to reduce this land to its rightful role of decoration. Not that they don’t try” (p20).
Only Aljaz feels fundamentally at one with the Tasmanian wilderness.
Personally, I am left with an uncomfortable sense that in this, his first novel, Flanagan is claiming some kind of exclusivity. In the ABC interview he says that he enjoys hearing about the way others experience the river, but here he seems to believe that a meaningful experience of Tasmania’s wilderness is possible only for a few, and to doubt the capacity of people less familiar with this land to feel its power. No character outside Aljaz’s family is allowed a spiritual connection with the Tasmanian country.
Aljaz’s own deep connection with the natural world seems fundamentally related to his life of pain and deprivation, to loss and great sadness, to the suffering of his forebears, to his nihilism, his deep existential loneliness and the terrible stories he relives.
“Withered and dead, thought Aljaz, in different ways, in different places, all of us withered and dead” (p25).
His father, Harry feels this too:
“Life seems to him to be the promise of pleasures unfulfilled” (p233).
Nor do Aljaz’s musings come with a sense of enlightenment, at least until the end of the book when, after suffering agonies under the water, he soars above our world. He attains a profound unity with the sky, with an eagle, with the world and with all of time.
“As if there is only one story and it could be written on a pinhead and within it every story of every man” (p320).
Even here, he attains some kind of understanding only through recognition of the terrible events that lie at the origins of his family.
And yet, here lies the power of this novel. Amongst the agony and the alienation, the passages one remembers, long after reading it, are the exquisite renditions of Tasmania’s wild places, and the moments of transcendent glory.
“Wet and pungent comes the smell of the damp black earth … 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, miniscule and myriad; as Huon pine sprigs, forcing their way through the crumbling damp decay, forked and knowing as a water diviner’s stick … I too am beginning to drink the richness of that early morning into my body and soul” (p79-80).
References and Further Reading
Flanagan, Richard (1994), Death of a River Guide. Ringwood, Vic. McPhee Gribble.
About adventure on the Franklin-Gordon Rivers