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.’

Richard Flanagan (2013) The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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I had never heard of Richard Flanagan until I watched Imagine on BBC 1 that celebrated the writer and his work. I bought a few of his books and started in on the 2014 winner of the Man Booker Prize. I expected great things and I was not disappointed.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a metonym for a place and time on the Line, a railway built by an estimated 250 000 Burmese and Chinese coolies and 60 000 prisoners of war though impenetrable jungle with little or no food and little or no resources. The story of the Line is the story of the men that built the line. A story of fiction and friction. ‘For the Line was broken, as all lines are finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remains.’ The Line is also about something bigger than man and lives transformed. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the title of Basho’s great haibun. The caricature that is Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura temporarily put aside talk of the Line to discuss the common ground on which they can meet to celebrate the purity and superiority of Japanese poetry, literature, and its spirit that would build a railway all the way through Burma (Thailand), all the way to India, a spirit that would conquer the world. The Line is a testing ground that asks the question, what is a man?

The answer depends where you stand on the Line. For a hollowed out Dorrigo Evans it is the lie that holds most true, in Auden’s words ‘you must love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.’ The Line is love and hate and all the primordial things they create, a stripping away of self and a revelation of who we really are. Dorrigo Evans earliest memories are of light, a theme that runs through the book, ‘of sun flooding through a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother’. Running in and out of the light and the welcoming arms of women. Flash forward forty years and Evans is lauded, a national hero and serial philanderer still running in and out of the arms of women, but feels he is a fraud about to be found out, as so many other men are. For he has been tested on the Line and found wanting.  But like the Greeks, and the poets he admires, he finds time is not fixed, but elastic. He also finds his wife to be Ella’s welcoming lips as dry as dust. He loved once; Amy with his heart. She was never just a place to park his cock, another conquest, but he believes she died in a house fire. But it is the darkness of self, like the other men on the Line, he always returns; the darkness of rain cloud and tropical rain that demands ‘dominion over all things’ and the mud and the shit. The decisions he had to make as a commanding officer; a surgeon, making do, with sharpened spoons as scalpels; when the right decision is wrong and the wrong decision never right. A place where 1000 men like him rose up every day – Lazarus arising with hunger eating him alive like an animal. ‘You are never free of the world,’ he reasons, ‘to share life is to share guilt’.  He remonstrates with Major Nakamura who demands more and more hours of work from fewer and fewer men. He tells him that four men had died overnight. That left 838 POWs. Seventy seven had cholera. Another 107 were in hospital. Another 176 were too ill for work, (eg. malaria, ringworm, podagra, avitaminosis, beriberi, gangrene, foot and leg ulcers that eat bone) other than light duties. Major Nakamura demands 500 fit men.  Evans cannot find one fit man, but offers Nakamura, 363. But prisoners of war are not men, they have behaved in a dishonourable way and surrendered. If Evans cannot find 500 fit men, Nakamura will.

Richard Flanagan is best in the jungle with Dorrigo Evans and his brothers in arms, men like Darky Gardner, beaten to death by Japanese guards, as the men in the Line were forced to watch. Sheephead  Morton, Tiny Middleton, Rooster MacNiece, Jimmy Bigelow, Lizard Brancussi; all names that resonate with a certain kind of Aussie (or Tasmanian) maleness, reduced to something less. It was no victory worth talking about and best forgotten if the war they fought was reduced to being a slave for the yellow man. ‘What was a prisoner of war anyway? Less than a man’ to the Japanese way of thinking. What springs to my mind is a radio interview of British veterans of these camps. They retuned on old ships, docking at Southampton docks, kissing the ground and rubbing our home soil into their face.

The book becomes less sure-footed in following the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and later, mainland Japan, in which tens of millions starved, among them Major Nakamura. His exploits are more B-movie than ManBooker Prize winner. Similarly, Dorrigo Evan’s denouement and his car chase through a burning- bush fire in Thailand to save Ella and his family, seems too large for a single life. But then again most lives are.

Flanagan has a point to make. The victims were not all on the allied side. Dorrigo Evans comes face to face with Japanese-military might, a boy soldier in the Burmese jungle on his way to fight on the front line, wherever the front line could be found. Even in his dilapidated state Evans could see the boy was little more than a bag of bones wearing the uniform of the Emperor. He felt sorry for him. The boy’s officers slapped and kicked him, hurrying him alone. Binto, the ritual abuse of slapping and hitting, was part of the soldier’s training as monsoon season was to the jungle. This brutalisation in the name of duty, honour and deference to the emperor’s will extended to the lowest of his subjects, which included the Koreans, mobilised, not as a fighting force, they weren’t pure enough for that, but as comfort women and as prison guards. The psychopathic Goanna, Choi Song-Min, executed as a Class B war criminal is also a boy soldier on the Line. But his backstory is not always convincing. For example he shows his psychopathic traits (as out of any trait handbook) by killing a dog and selling it to a butcher for ten yen, even though it was owned by the family he worked for. The point he makes while imprisoned for the brutalisation of men on the Line, and the death of Darky Gardiner is, however, valid. Where was the Emperor? Why wasn’t he being hanged? Why was the prisoners mainly Korean? Where were the big-wigs? Colonel Kota who openly admitted to cutting the heads of prisoners and of eating Americans POWs, hides in plain sight, and uses his ties with old moneyed soldiers to get a job for his junior, officer, Nakamura. Later Kota is revered as a great Buddhist poet; his death a sham. As Sato, who had helped in live human experiments of vivisection on American POWs, explained to Nakamura, the Americans want to forget about it and so do we. It’s business as usual.

‘We too are victims of war,’ says Nakamura. He goes to visit an officer below him on the Line, Tomokowa, whom he thought a bit stupid. He reminds him that they did their duty. It couldn’t have been that bad, with all the prisoner’s singing. And in Manchuria you were encouraged to kill and rape; you could have as many women as you liked. Don’t tell his wife but ‘It was the happiest time of his life’.  Nostalgia and remembering changes the man and is a form of forgetting, epitomised by Hykakka:

Winter ice

melts into clear water-

clear is my heart.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, stark and true.

Imagine…Richard Flanagan: Life After Death. Interview by Alan Yentob

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I didn’t know it but I like Richard Flanagan, even though I’ve not read any of his books. Grandson of illiterates and descended from criminals transported to Tasmania, his father revered books but to be an author was not something he expected. A drowning accident in which he seemed to understand for a moment the interconnectedness of all things changed that. He continued working, but knew at a deeper level his real job in this life was to write.

I’ll rectify not reading any of his books. Order The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Man booker prize in 2014. I know I’ll love it. Flanagan talks about his dad taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Japanese and forced to build the Burmese railway that inspired, among others tales about Hellfire Pass and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Flanagan talks about visiting Thailand were the railway passed through and also visiting one of the guards in Japan that had tortured his dad. ‘The Lizard’ beat one of his father’s friends to death, with two other guards, in front of 300 prisoners, who were forced to stand impotently and watch. Man’s inhumanity to man. The Lizard, now an old man, Flanagan describes him as affable. But he wanted to experience what it was like for him, the torturer, to be in the Japanese army of Emperor Hirohito, where senior soldiers beating junior soldiers was a common form of control. Other races such as the Chinese were seen as inferior. In the Rape of Nanking of 1937-38, for example, an estimated civilian population of between 100 000 and 300 000 were killed and mutilated with up to 100 000 woman raped. Soldiers such as the British and Australian, including Flanagan’s father, who despite superior numbers surrendered Hong Kong without much of a fight were also seen as inferior. At the bottom of this chain of command was the prison guard, a level above other guards not racially pure such as the Koreans, but miles above the men they were guarding who were regarded as expendable.   He got the Lizard to slap him across the face. A ritual form of humiliation. Yentob asks Flanagan if he found it difficult to enter into, indeed empathise with, people like the Lizard. Flanagan’s answer that he didn’t find it hard to find the monster within, which is wisdom and a watchword when the evil twins of indifference and inhumanity are let loose are they so often are in contemporary society.

Flanagan himself experienced corporate and state-sponsored hatred and persecution. In 2007 he published an article, Gunns: ‘Out of Control’ in The Tasmanian Times showing clearly the links between state and corporate interests and pollution of Tasmanian forests in which the company Gunns, which did 85% of tree felling, benefited a few select shareholders but at a devastating cost to the community and his country. His fictional account The Unknown Terrorist has its roots in that dark period in which he told Alan Yentob not only was it a terrorist offence to challenge corporate interests, but reporters reporting on those arrested for such terrorists offences could also be arrested as terrorists. Sometime fact can be stranger than fiction – and you really couldn’t make it up. Ted Genoways The Chain made similar claims about the way factory food is farmed and produced and protected by state interests in America –all in the name of jobs- but with devastating environmental and social impacts. The gagging of those involved in uncovering the hidden costs is also treated as a terrorist offence. I’ve went off track, but Richard Flanagan down under is on top of what it means to be human.