White Water

Richard Flanagan writes big sprawling novels. His stories and characters connect in intimate ways with his own. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was inspired by his father’s experience on the Burma Railroad. Gould’s Book of Fish gestures toward his convict ancestry. Death of a River Guide, Flanagan’s debut, tackles the creation myth of his home, Tasmania.

Aljaz Cosini has a raft full of punters waiting to shoot the rapids of the Franklin River. Problem is: Cosini’s stuck in the boulders below with a waterfall pounding his head. He’s dying, he knows it and the reader does, too. And yet we read on for Cosini has a gift.

I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild, sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.
And I must share them, or their magic will become as a burden.

Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide (Vintage 2016)

A Convict Past

Those visions range in time and space. Cosini witnesses his own birth, the death of his convict ancestor, and the rape of his great grandmother. He has no desire to see all the things his grand visions reveal and yet they come, unbidden, to pull apart everything Cosini thought he knew about himself.

No one told Cosini that he had a convict for an ancestor. But there he is, bubbling up from the white water from the Franklin River: Ned Quade. His mates and masters alike call Ned the Stone Man.

Because upon a triangle where he is flogged for possessing a wad of tobacco or, once for singing a song, he betrays no pain. […] Because in his heart he is innocent and he will not betray his innocence with a single cry of suffering. For that would be an admission that punishment had been felt and was therefore somehow just.

Cosini learns a lot of things hanging upside down in the frothing river. Things that his father or his grandfather could have told him if only they knew the words to use.

Men’s Talk

The men in Flanagan’s world don’t speak. They gesture, they strike poses, they hold a mask to their faces. As a river guide, Cosini knows he must appear to be invincible. How else can he convince a raft full of punters to obey his orders? So, every morning, Cosini shapes his face into a brave mask.

Cosini’s father, Harry, walks for a day and a half to bring word that his father Boy is dead. When Harry finds his uncles George and Basil, they sit down. Uncle Basil rolls three cigarettes, which they smoke. Finally, Uncle George asks, And Boy?

Harry turned and looked at George, and knew what he must say and how he must say it, like a man, and he was at once grateful for being allowed the space between his feelings and his tongue that this response allowed: ‘A tree,’ said Harry.

As a child, Cosini gets sick and his hearing fails. His speech makes no sense to his parents but to Cosini every word could be a tree full of fruit. Desire in Flanagan’s world is a silent thing.

Boongs

As Cosini travels ever higher into his family tree, he glimpses pieces of himself. The lank red hair and the jagged blue eyes Cosini inherited from his convict ancestor Ned. The dark skin and large nose his father Harry passed along.

Harry has never seen anyone with his color of skin until he goes to live with Auntie Ellie. Is you an Abo, little Harry asks. Auntie Ellie lays into him.

Slap.
‘We ain’t no Abos, we ain’t no boongs, ya hear?’
Slap.
‘Ya talk like that they’ll take ya away, ya understand? They’ll take ya back to the islands. I already told you what we are – decent white Catholic folk.’
Slap.
‘What are we?’
‘White Catholic folk.’

In Tasmania, to be a boong is even worse than being a convict. European settlers robbed Aboriginals of their farms and fisheries and women. Let guns and disease finish the job. In 1876, the colonial authorities in Tasmania organized a parade to celebrate the death of the last full-blooded Aboriginal.

Their offspring live on in the shadows. If they can, they pass themselves off as White Catholic folk. If they can’t, they’ll be treated as blackfellas

subject to different laws, forced to live in special areas, and until the 1970s subjected to a policy of assimilation that could see their children being taken away from them, [and] reviled if they called for equal rights as Aborigines, being told Tasmanian Aborigines didn’t exist.

Richard Flanagan, “The lost tribe” in The Guardian, 14 Oct 2002

In Aljaz Cosini, Flanagan has conjured the true Tasmanian: red-haired, blue-eyed, dark-skinned, dying before our eyes.

27 Mar 2020 | Karen Kao