Flanagan's 'River Guide': Treasure from Tasmania

On Books

March 11, 2001|By Michael Pakenham | By Michael Pakenham,SUN STAFF

Belatedly, there comes now from Tasmania a novel of consummate artistry and towering humanity. It is "Death of a River Guide" by Richard Flanagan (Grove, 336 pages, $24).

This is Flanagan's first novel. It appeared in 1994 in Australia and is now being published in the United States for the first time. His second book, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping," published last year, was hugely celebrated not only in Australia, but also in Britain and the United States. Flanagan lives with his wife and three children in Tasmania, the island province of Australia just south of the mainland - an expanse that includes vast rain forests that are still significantly wild and uncharted.

The central character is Aljaz Cosini, a 36-year-old rootless sometime laborer, sometime wilderness guide, who was born in Trieste to a Slovenian mother and an itinerant, ne'er-do-well Tasmanian, who had brought his son and the son's mother back to Hobart when Aljaz was 2.

As the story begins - and for the rest of the novel - Aljaz is dying. His body is snagged between rocks and submerged in the wild Franklin River. He is looking up through coursing, aerated water right above a waterfall.

The people he has been guiding and a fellow guide are standing helplessly on a huge rock, watching him, his hand protruding from the water. Time is suspended as Aljaz relates an intricate tapestry of "visions" covering almost two centuries, which come to him in a matter of a minute or two - a device similar to the one that Ambrose Bierce used in his 1892 short story, "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge."

He is a professional guide, and has done this river many times. This is the fourth day of a trip of 10 days, with the same number of tourists, on inflated rafts. Experienced as he is, the river terrifies him. As he steers the raft through the rapids, Aljaz is hurtled overboard by a sudden lurch.

Throughout, the narrative voice switches from the first person to the third. The visions that constitute the entire body of the book range from simple stories of his life to minutely detailed descriptions of the lives of his forebears for four generations and other people directly and

indirectly related.

That story reaches back as far as 1832, when Ned Quade, Aljaz's great-grandfather, escaped from a prison compound - a major enterprise in colonial Tasmania. Then, in order to survive, he killed the last of three comrades and lived off his flesh for the length of the final leg of his trekking through rain forest to a village.

A main sequence of the book is the actual trip down the river, day by day, describing everything - weather and water, the rafts, the food, sleeping conditions. But the whole is an enormous, intricate, intimate tapestry not only of the wilderness, but also of a family, an expansive tribal community - the largely poor, flawed and utterly believable working-class people of Tasmania. This is primitive, tough living, with babies born in kitchens in snowstorms with no help from a midwife or doctor.

The book is neither informed nor cluttered with political history or much in the way of contextual explanations beyond the stark fact that was Tasmania populated significantly by prisoners "transported" from England as too dangerous to keep at home, and by hard-working and largely unrewarded honest settlers.

There is a strong distinction between "free blood" and "convict blood" - the latter called "crawlers" who are said to have "the taint." There are places with names like "Gog Range" and "No Where Else" and "Paradise." There is "an empty wilderness designated only as 'Little Known About This Country.'"

Flanagan writes about it all with fluency, familiarity and a smoothly moving conversational narrative. He brings forth the

voices, the consciousnesses of the taciturn, hardened, narrow souls and constricted self-awareness of these hard-bitten people.

It is a haunting book, rich with mysteries and nagging ironies, with great hopes - most of them unfulfilled. It is also a book of disappointment, death and survival.

Much of the material in Aljaz's visions may be taken either literally or as fantasy or even delusion. Flanagan handles intentional ambiguity very delicately and effectively. Mundane and domestic matters are interplayed with fantastical events, increasingly as the novel moves toward its ending. Strange Tasmanian animals and birds become invested with character and voice. The animism of the stone age Aboriginals rises to combat the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.

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