Richard Flanagan Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Flanagan Long Fiction Analysis

Richard Flanagan’s first three novels are concerned largely with questions of identity and kinship. In Death of a River Guide, he plumbs his childhood in a large Irish Catholic family, one with an oral tradition whose stories, he says, are full of fascinating digressions. In The Sound of One Hand Clapping he explores the sorrows and triumphs in his wife’s Slovenian ancestry. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uncovers Tasmania’s painful history, and in the process finds marvelous treasures.

Flanagan’s later novels are at a further remove, though they remain concerned with life’s big questions. The Unknown Terrorist, Flanagan’s response to Australian antiterror laws, is a cry of outrage. In Wanting, he unearths material from the past to tell the story of desire, that most basic of human emotions and a driving force that cannot be long suppressed without harm.

Flanagan’s overarching theme is that love matters above all else. In the interviews that accompanied the launch of each of his books, he made clear that he believed humans find meaning in life through relationships with other people. His books approach this fundamental issue; love and authenticity can be blocked in innumerable ways, most of them well intentioned. It is inevitable that humans will miss the mark a great deal of the time, but what matters more than individual success or failure is to keep striving toward human connection.

Flanagan makes full use of fiction’s ability to “go” wherever it must, though he often finds inspiration in historical facts and artifacts, particularly those of Tasmanian provenance. What drew Flanagan to the writing of history was perhaps a desire to find some sense of his own place in the world as a Tasmanian, as a cultural, if not genetic, descendant of Aborigines, convicts, and immigrants. History, however, is bound by a few facts surrounded by large gaps of information. What cannot be found in the material world must be left out of the story.

In fiction, Flanagan found a way to express what he had learned: that the vitality, intelligence, and creativity of Tasmania’s people will see them through, as it always has, and that to look unflinchingly at Tasmania’s dark colonial past is to recognize human fallibility and realize that it is possible to learn and move on. Hope, that small green shoot, finds a way to push through the ashes of destruction and despair toward light.

Flanagan is not stingy with detail, and his dialogue is always true to the character. He bestows great care on every aspect of his work. (Before writing Gould’s Book of Fish, he made sure to find a book designer, and then worked with him throughout the book’s composition.)

In his love of his family, his homeland, and his history, Flanagan is a Tasmanian Walt Whitman, at one with the soul of the place, a love that is as visceral as it is intellectual. He is a writer for whom all the senses matter, for whom all layers of experience are valuable.

Death of a River Guide

Flanagan’s first novel was far more successful than the Tasmanian literary community expected it to be. Flanagan had already written a number of historical works, so his ability to write was not in question. It may have been more a matter of a lack of faith in the subject matter—a drowning Tasmanian full of regrets. Death of a River Guide, an accessible and even uplifting book, was an ambitious experiment that few would even attempt, but Flanagan succeeded with apparent ease.

Aljaz Cosini, the river guide, is wedged headfirst in rocks in the Franklin River, one hand breaking the surface of the water like a sad flag. As his lungs burn and his body aches, his mind travels, impossibly expanding time, visiting ancestors, past selves, loves, and the events on the river that led to his current predicament. Aljaz is a helpless witness to all that has gone into making who he is, with no choice of where or when he enters or leaves a scene.

Aljaz narrates his story in third person as an observer of his visions and in first person as the one who is drowning. Throughout the story, he is mostly puzzled by his own actions and choices, but he is experiencing more insight into them now, seeing them from the outside, as an observer. Now he can ask questions he did not have the wit or courage to ask while living.

Aljaz was born with a caul, a traditional sign of having second sight. His mother intended to save the caul but soon sold it to a sailor so she could buy little Aljaz some fruit when he fell ill. The midwife, Maria Magdelena Svevo, is a tough, cigar-smoking refugee from Slovenia who came to Australia with Sonja Cosini, Aljaz’s mother, and she hangs around. Aljaz’s former love is Couta Ho, mother of Jemma, their child, who died in her crib when she was three months old.

Aljaz is a failure, mostly because of his own choices, which seemed right at the time—except for his choice to do one last stint as a river guide. He is out of shape, old for a guide (thirty-six), and ten years removed from his last river run. He knows the trip is not a good idea, but when his former boss offers him the job, he cannot say no.

Drowning, Aljaz sees episodes in the lives of his parents, his grandparents, and even his great grandparents. He discovers that his forebears include a convict and an Aborigine. As his consciousness wanders where it will and Aljaz is drawn in to his own story, he begins to feel far more attached to his life, now that he is about to leave it, than he did while he lived it. In Death of a River Guide Flanagan draws from his own experiences to send a message: Life is hard, love hurts. Do not turn away. Look.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

The Sound of One Hand Clapping was meant to be a screenplay, but Flanagan did not know how to go about writing one, so he wrote it first in prose and then “translated” it. Not surprisingly, the occasional cinematic moment glimmers through the text. Nevertheless, Flanagan has made good use of the novelist’s ability to get inside the characters and let the reader see into their hearts. As a result, this novel is intense and emotional, writ large to project off the screen, and then embroidered to fill in the gaps of detail that a film cannot show.

Bojan and Maria Buloh made their way from Slovenia to Tasmania. Bojan was set to work on a hydro dam in Butler’s Gorge, leaving behind, the couple hoped, the terrible events of the war years. One snowy night, Maria walked out on Bojan and their small daughter Sonja, never to return.

Sonja, now in her late thirties, decides to visit her father, driven by a need she refuses to define but cannot ignore. She has made it as far from Butler’s Gorge as she can, to the big Australian city of Sydney, with its pleasant anonymity. She avoids closeness—life is easier that way. She prefers tiny apartments that are as impersonal as hotel rooms. She drives in from Hobart and visits the hydro dam. The worker’s camp is long gone.

Bojan still works in the area as a laborer, drinking too much and avoiding closeness, but he also paints flowers on everything, even his hard hat. He lays out sumptuous meals for himself, food like that from the old country, and buys Tasmanian schnapps from a fellow down the road. Sonja’s visit is accepted ungraciously, and she wonders...

(The entire section is 3055 words.)