Richard Flanagan (1994) Death of a River Guide


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Beyond reason is a different country and Aljaz Cosini has walked its paths, picked it flowers, crammed his mouth full of its fruits and swam in its many seas.  ‘I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.’

Drowning or dying is a Damascene experience few come back to tell the tale, fewer still to live and tell. As readers we always look for clues as to who the writer really is. Richard Flanagan knows about death by drowning and being a river guide because that is who he is, who he was and who he will always be. Look no further than the example of Corsini wanting and needing to get out on the river and ‘That bastard Pigs Breath’ who wasn’t much of a guide, who wasn’t much of anything, but was his boss, screwing him over for money, because that’s the way of the world. ‘Maybe I was always drowning,’ concedes Corsini/Flanagan.


Corsini differentiates between the many that die by drowning, their lungs swamped by water, unable to breathe their brain dead, their body dead, their life ended. Yet, others, very, very, few others, of which Flanagan is one of life’s great lottery winners, spend minutes and sometimes hours under water and they too drown, as Flanagan did, buried beneath a waterfall, his body burning, but it is dry drowning. The body shuts down and enough oxygen remains in the body to keep the brain from dying. Cosini (Flanagan) suggests that this is some primitive mechanism, the oesophagus slides shut a valve and protects the lungs, the heart and brain, but really it is Lazarus rising and it is easier to talk in terms of miracles as rare as walking on water.

Cosini makes plain, when other die, as he did they see a tunnel and enter into the light. Cosini saw more than that he saw his father moving down the river going to work, and his grandfather and his great great grandfather, and witnessed the conception, the rape of his great great grandmother Black Pearl 1828 in a remote island in Bass Strait, fucked like a sheep from behind by a sealer, who had stolen her and two other women from a Tasmanian tribe, to work for him as his slaves and slay seals and dry their skins to sell for profit.

Cosini has done a wondrous thing, the thing that all writers aim for and few succeed, of slowing time, or stopping time, living in the moment and living in eternity. Underneath the mouth of the waterfall, Black Pearl is in Cosini and he is in her, separate and indivisible part of all living things that have moved and breathed.

Cosini relives and walks us through the days and years leading up to his death by drowning – it is not clear if the narrator does survive, but he also walks us through the hidden places and hidden spaces in the birth of a nation. His relative Ned Quade 1832 fleeing from the convict stockade on Van Diemen’s Land waiting for death round a campfire with other lags, waiting for life, ‘gauntfaced with exhaustion and terror, knowing whoever fell asleep first would only momentarily reawaken…’

‘Aaron Hersey, not moving, axe held high. “Seen some things. Seen barefaced men chained to a plough in place of oxen. Seen a woman in Hobart made wear a spiked iron collar and her head shaved for lying with another woman, raped by redcoats and lags alike. Seen a native woman with a child shot down like a bird from the trees in which she hid. I even seen a boy buggered by an entire chain gang, the constable holding him down”’.

If we step outside the narrative and place Cosini/Flanagan alongside other visionaries such as Plenty Coups who belonged to The Crow of the American Indian tribes, we can use Jonathan Lear’s (2008) Radical Hope to differentiate what is meant by visions, (but not where they come from) and the knowledge that ‘this inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture.’ [Including our own? Discuss]

Thus Cosini vision is of a land is a memory of loss, of a land fat and full of fish and game. A land as an idea and a source of wealth. A land that the convicts and the blackfellas shared. A land before and after the fall. When the English stopped sending convicts, stopped sending gold to support garrisons. A land where ‘nobody spoke’. A land of hunger and fear. The greatest, unspoken fear, the natives would be touted as children of convicts and blackfellas, as Cosini was, as they all were.

The Crow tribe distinguished four types of dreams. The most powerful were Medicine dreams or visions which gave insights into the future.

Cosini’s vision is not of the future but of the past. It uncovers the hypocrisy of  a them and us society. Write what you know. That old chestnut. It’s useful if you’ve drowned and seen everything and know everything, but just can’t remember what you forgot. Perhaps Cosini was always drowning. Perhaps we all are.

Death of a River Guide is original and an assured debut by Flanagan, but because he is now a Man Booker Prize winner 2014, does not mean this book does not need edited. Sentences fall off the end of the world. And I had to read a passage several times about Harry (Cosini’s father) bringing his bride back from Italy to Australia, but he had already died, I don’t know what the narrator meant, and still don’t get it. The author’s job is to make things clear, to give facts  factional space, and feet to the characters they create. Flanagan has that in spades. But he’s not perfect. Not yet. But if he sticks his mouth under another waterfall he might hear angels, or the mocking laughter of his friends and family again. ‘There’s no wisdom in the grave.’

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