Death of a River Guide ~ Richard Flanagan

I had read Richard Flanagan’s last three novels (Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2002), The Unknown Terrorist (2007) and Wanting (2009). Gould’s…I found particularly stunning in every way. But I had never gone back to his first novel, and it’s about time I did. I’m adding this as one of the books in a Global Reading Challenge in which I’m participating for 2011.

Popular beliefs state that as we near death we may experience a “life review”, the most common of which we’ve all heard:  “my life flashed before my eyes.”  In Flanagan’s novel the experience is ‘as i lay drowning’.  Aljaz Cosini is a river guide in Tasmania, the narrator of our story, (the drowning narrator)  who was one of those people “born in the caul”. The irony of the novel is that one of the medieval superstitions has it that to be born under the caul protects that person from drowning – I’ve read at least one novel this past year with people born “in” or “with” a caul – Tom McCarthy’s C is the one I remember. There may have been one more. As with other caul births

the caul that a baby is born in is considered to be of the greatest luck, fate’s guarantee that neither the baby born within the caul nor the possessor of the membrane will ever drown.

This is the legend of the caul. It’s not hard to see why this birth device is so popular in fiction. It sets up the surrounding story, but the auspiciousness is not always as it seems. When the midwife begins to clean the floor of afterbirth

an archive of human life, a record written in fading blotches of blood and wine and sperm and urine and faeces of the progress of life from birth to youth to love to disease to death.

Flanagan has played one of his cards immediately.

Maria  Magdalena Svevo, the midwife, and Aljaz’ mother were the sort of people who loved each other’s company, but were “loathe to admit it”. Maria has a saying: “Sydney or the bush”. Life or death. It’s this that Aljaz remembers as he commences to drown during a rafting accident. Then he begins to have visions.

And I must share them, or their magic will become as a burden.

The novel is a chronicle of the visions that Aljaz has as he drowns.

It’s Auntie Ellie who raises Aljaz after his mother (Sonja) dies, leaving his father Harry unable to cope with raising a son on his own. Later, when Aljaz falls for an exotic woman by the name of Couta Ho, they have a child (Jemma) who survives only briefly. Her death casts a pall over the very real love between Couta and Aljaz. As a result, Aljaz leaves for a life of wandering, coming back to Tasmania only after he gets word that his father lays dying. The novel is told as a series of visions of his life – not in chronological order – but taken together, they piece together the lives of the people who mattered to him. Memory, sensory memory plays a great part in these lives and consequently in the novel itself. Many of these are exquisite in their evocativeness.

Sonja and Harry met in Trieste after the war. He was from Tasmania, she was from Slovenia. Harry had come there as a sewing machine salesman, and Sonja caught his eye immediately. They were both outsiders in Trieste, so gravitated to each other. In preparation for their first date, Maria Magdalena Svevo produces a borrowed, but freshly presses dress for Sonja to wear. She had even taken the time to sprinkle the inside of the dress with ground cloves.  At this, Maria cackles

“Fruit is best eaten seasoned.” Never again would Harry be able to eat apple strudel without feeling the most terrible desire.

This is a novel of ‘storytelling’ as much as visions. In Aljaz’s visions, he remembers the stories told to him. When Maria is telling the story of Harry and Sonja to her, Couta Ho raises an objection.

‘The problem with these stories is that they presume there are one or two moments in your life that define what you are for the rest of it. Life’s not like that’

Maria asks the question what it were like that? Couta Ho just doesn’t think so. Life’s direction is not locked in at some point in time. It’s fluid, allowing for decisions at key junctures. Demanding them, in fact. For her, the decisions are constant and “countless”.

Maria watched the languid rise of the smoke from her near-dead cigar toward the ceiling. ‘What if it is? As I get older and older I think perhaps there is a great truth in such stories. I used to be quite confused about such things.  Now I think that maybe the confusion is what we use to not hear the silence. To not see the emptiness.’

As he begins another of his visions (Aljaz sees the home in which Aunt Ellie raised him) he seems

to have little immediate place in the happenings that boil up in the front of this vision, but then it is perhaps those things most distant from our conscious mind that are the most central to what we are. Least that’s how some might put it. Harry would have said that if you want to follow a footy game, never watch the park but the loose players at the edges.

Life is best understood from the angles, from the resting perimeters. Life is a game of billiards, not a game of pool.

The wild landscape is as much a part of the novel as are the universally finely tuned characters. If you love writing full of vivid descriptions of the natural world, you’ll love this writing. And there are some spectacular images, but none more so than this one – one I keep seeing in my mind long after I’ve finished the book. The context is Aljaz’s vision of his coming to the Tasmanian town of Strahan, where he will be raised by his Aunt Ellie. The vision includes a “speeded-up film” vision of the history of the town – its growth to its dissolution. The tide goes in and the tide goes out.

There a blackwood tree had grown up through the middle of an abandoned railway carriage. its broadening, rising trunk over the decades elevating the carriage a yard into the air, carrying the carriage with it in its exuberant journey toward the light above the forest canopy, so that the carriage now appeared to be flying in the midst of a steaming dank green profusion of tea-trees and vines and myrtles and celery top pines. No railway irons, no buildings, no material relics of the once muscular railway yard and the once bustling town remained. Nothing.

Save for a carriage that flew in the rainforest.

In Jennifer Egans’ A Visit From the Goon Squad, life was presented as a goon that beat you up, threw you down and stomped. In Flanagan’s novel, as Harry Lewis says, “Life is the cruelest of boxers.” Harry is the Lou of Egan’s novel. In both, the death-bed illumination seems not to apply to the young. Only with age, does life appear to us so. Life, says Harry

…gets you in a corner as you grow old, on the ropes, and there is no referee to call a halt. And it hits you and hits you again and again. And when you slump there is no referee to say enough is enough. There is no referee to say you shouldn’t kick a fella in the guts and in the head when he’s down. But that’s how it is. Life just keeps kicking you until there’s nothing left to kick.

…on his deathbed he can only despair of so little achieved, of so many opportunities for friendship and love missed and dissolved in the minute trivia of daily living, and his final time approaches not as an autumn but with the sharp and fearful damp coldness of a mist rising on a winter’s nightfall.

Once again, Flanagan reverts to the locomotive image, but differently this time. Aljaz becomes incensed at the platitudes pronounced by his fathers undertaker. The grieving process…

What grieving process…Is what I am feeling a process? It struck him as the most curious thought, that his feeling might be some sort of emotional locomotive, calling at all stops between the departure point of death and the destination of – well, whatever the destination was meant to be. Happiness, perhaps. Whatever that meant. Calling at all stops – guilt, anger, remorse, reconciliation.

The story of how Aljaz actually comes to be on the river, and to lead a wilderness expedition down the rapids of the dangerous Franklin River stands up on its own as narrative, even as we know the outcome. There really is suspense. But also wise reflection on the eternal: life, time, memory, and death.

A great book. Right up there with Gould’s… as my favorite Flanagan.

Global Reading Challenger: Tasmania



Filed under Books

2 responses to “Death of a River Guide ~ Richard Flanagan

  1. I’ve had Gould’s Book of Fish on the shelf for ages… I need to bump it up in the queue, I think.

  2. Pingback: Best of, Sort of | Chazz W

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