A rough ride through water and memory

Australia is hot. Just a month after Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang," here comes another even more searing exploration of the land Down Under.

There shouldn't be much suspense in a book called "Death of a River Guide," but the quickened pulse of Richard Flanagan's first novel is just part of its magic. The story takes place during the four or five minutes it takes Aljaz Cosini to drown. That's a dangerous position for narrator and author. As Benjamin Franklin said of hanging, it concentrates the mind.

In Aljaz's case, having his head stuck between rocks in a raging river allows him to concentrate on his fractured life. "Death is not the complex matter life is," he thinks in an oddly wry voice. While his lungs fill with water, his mind surges with memories - not just his own, but visions that swirl through 200 years of ancestral struggle on the island of Tasmania, all the way back to the rape that blended his white and Aboriginal blood.

In prose as startling and strange as the platypus and the wallaby, Flanagan moves through the sad life of one inconsequential man to reveal the rich history of an entire country. "I am not pleased about the way the river is shoving my mind and heart about," he thinks, "pushing my body, forcing open parts that I thought closed forever."

Once, Aljaz had a reputation "for running the big ones, the rapids no one else would run, and making it through." But that was before the death of his infant daughter dropped him into a decade of grinding sorrow.

Now, the thought of shepherding tourists down a dangerous river seems like an act of desperation. He's out of practice and out of shape, but he's also out of money, and he had hoped this trip would be thrilling enough to help him swallow his own despair.

In a voice so frank it can make you laugh or wince, Aljaz recalls the trip's first six days. From his dying vantage, he can see his talents and faults, his role as guide and comedian, disciplinarian and nurse, loudly encouraging his punters, quietly mocking them, always attending to the group's mental climate despite the fog of his own fear. Passing through this novel may be as close as you can get to shooting deadly rapids without getting wet - or killed.

The mythos here is wholly Australian, but Flanagan uses rafting as effectively as Hemingway used bull fighting to explore the existential struggle to act nobly in the face of death. "In an age when everything can mean anything," he thinks, "perhaps it is only possible to exist as a cipher, as a thin, fragile outline of a hope etched across an infinity of madness."

Suddenly, his vision shifts, and he sees his father as a young man rowing through the rainforested wilderness 50 years earlier. Then, another scene arises, when his father was a child, sitting through his grandmother's funeral on the day the church walls bled. From another time, he watches his great-grandfather hack a fellow prisoner to death and eat him.

But these visions are no more painful than the memories of his own brief marriage. He's spent 10 lonely years trying to anesthetize his grief without much success. The blended panorama of past and present is sometimes too lush or too agonizing to absorb - simultaneously bombastic, outrageous, orphic, and surreal.

"The past isn't ever over," Aljaz thinks as he hears his relatives deny their connection to the convicts and natives who writhed beneath British oppression. All down his family tree, they've thirsted for peace they could never drink.

Their stories are saturated with sadness, but they never dissolve into a pool of undifferentiated despair. Part of Flanagan's genius is the way he individualizes these characters with their own wildly peculiar struggles. Aljaz's dying visions reclaim them from the darkness of his past and the shiny gloss of Australian history.

Recalling Ecclesiastes' ancient lament, Aljaz thinks, "A name, be it a good or a bad name, washes away quicker than the peat that gathers in the potholes in the river rock, there to briefly swirl for an hour or two before disappearing, to be ground into the mass fecund nothingness of river loam."

The bracing power of this story works against that dark appraisal, and Aljaz's thick cynicism is contradicted by the desperate love that generates so much agony for him.

"The Death of a River Guide" is the birth of a daring talent.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

Death of a River guide

By Richard Flanagan Grove Press 326 pp., $24

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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