ljaz Cosini, the river guide and narrator of Death of a River Guide, undergoes a vivid, mystical journey through time and space while slowly drowning in a Tasmanian river. What materializes is an inventive portrait of man and land, intertwined through generations of pain, hardship and blood.
Author Richard Flanagan creates a memorable character in Aljaz, a Tasmanian of English, Slovenian and Aboriginal descent. With unflinching and often brutal honesty, Aljaz reflects on his own foibles: his failed relationship with an ethnic Chinese woman; his aimless wanderings around Tasmania after their infant daughter's death; his fears accompanying the onset of early middle age; the questions about his own origins. The river guide emerges as a man possessing that rare ability to analyze his experiences with a detachment that nonetheless rings with feeling.
As he drowns, Aljaz relives not only his own life but that of his ancestors. Flanagan masterfully produces these twin voices as candid, intriguing representations of the same man.
Rich personalities people the novel: Harry, Aljaz's father, meets his wife in post-war Trieste, where she gives birth to her only son with the aid of a crusty, cigar-smoking Italian midwife, Maria Magdalena Svevo; Aljaz's fellow river guide, the Cockroach, crops up as a seemingly insignificant companion yet evolves into a fully developed character, helping Aljaz ferry a group of vacationers down the storm-swollen river even as it menaces their party.
Flanagan, an Australian writer who won acclaim for The Sound of One Hand Clapping, demonstrates impressive command of language and idiom with his precise writing. His style fuses long expository passages with sparse dialogue that not only pushes the narrative forward, but subtly reveals character without intruding on the story. The tale of Aljaz Cosini is a beautiful one that will continue to haunt long after the novel ends, prodding us to think about how our own lives even in these millennial times are still linked with the terrifying glory of nature.
Michael Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.