Richard Flanagan World Literature Analysis
In an interview after Death of a River Guide was published, Flanagan commented that “Art is the closest thing we have to holding on to that inner spirit world that we feel always to be on the verge of vanishing and which we recall only as the vaguest of sensations: the touch of a loved one, the shadow of a forgotten tree, the sound of a parent crying.” Flanagan’s concern to hold onto that “inner spirit world” is shown time and again in his novels. His characters are preoccupied with remembering the past or with reclaiming lost details of their own lives.
As he lies trapped under a waterfall, Aljaz Cosini, the eponymous river guide, becomes the conduit for the memories not only of his immediate family but of all his ancestors. On the one hand, he relives the parts they played in the creation of Tasmania as a country and a landscape, but on the other hand, his visions recapture all the tiny details of their lives that no one thought to record. The dilemma of William Buelow Gould, the protagonist in Gould’s Book of Fish, lies in the fact that he has created a fake life for himself because he has no other life available to him, but Flanagan then poses two questions: What happens if you start to believe in the identity you have constructed for yourself, and what happens if that identity is revealed to be a fake? Flanagan is immensely preoccupied with the opportunities that migration presents for people to literally reinvent themselves but also with the ways in which they lie to themselves as a result of having that chance to make themselves anew.
Flanagan is also fascinated by the structures of narrative, and both Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish experiment with ways of breaking out of conventional narrative frameworks. Death of a River Guide works with three different narrative threads, two working forward in time, and one working backward in time, with all three interlinking and criss-crossing to produce a complex picture of the immigrant experience in Tasmania. Gould’s Book of Fish employs what appears at first sight to be a standard framing device, with an unreliable narrator telling a story from within the framing device. Only gradually does it become clear that no part of this narrative structure can be safely relied on and that the whole narrative is in fact gradually collapsing in on itself, under the weight of its own artifice. As Flanagan clearly shows, there is no one person to whom ownership of the creative act can be fully assigned. Everyone, including the reader, is participating.
Death of a River Guide
First published: 1994
Type of work: Novel
Trapped beneath a waterfall on the Franklin River in Tasmania as he lies drowning, Aljaz Cosini, a river guide, travels back in time, seeing not only his life but that of his family, friends, and ancestors, providing a unique perspective on the turbulent history of Tasmania.
Flanagan’s breathtaking debut novel opens with the protagonist, Aljaz Cosini, trapped among rocks, under a waterfall. He is at the point of death, drowning, and as is expected of drowning people, his life is flashing before his eyes. However, it is not simply a matter of recapitulating his own life. Aljaz has also been granted visions and he is traveling beyond his own life, into the lives of others, the earlier members of his own family. Through their eyes he learns not only the history of his family but also of Tasmania itself.
Aljaz has only taken on this job to help out an acquaintance, having recently returned to Tasmania. His father has just died and he is alone in the world, with nothing to tie him down. He is being paid badly, and the river trip is poorly equipped; he is also out of condition, having long since given up working as a river guide. However, he has got nothing else going on in his life, and as he has drifted through life over the last few years, so he drifts into this final job, afraid, uncertain, but at the same time determined to do the decent thing by his clients.
In fact, as Aljaz lies under the water, he tells three stories. One is his own, beginning with his birth in Italy to the mercurial Sonja and the absent Harry, and moving forward in time through his relationship with the enigmatic Couta Ho, from another generation of immigrants, and the loss of their child, Jemma, to the ill-fated river rafting expedition and his imminent death. The second is the story of the rafting expedition itself, while the final story is one that comes to him in flashes and visions, which send him traveling back and forth through time.
This last is the story of Harry’s family, the Lewises and the Quades, decent, honest settlers, as Harry’s mother, Rose, insists, not like the convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania, as it was later called. Harry’s father, Boy, was a lumberjack and a trapper. After Rose died, Harry went up into the mountains to work with his father until Boy was killed...
(The entire section is 2061 words.)