Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Border Zones in Richard Flanagan´s Fiction (Death of a River Guide, 1994)

Jaroslav Kušnír (The University of Prešov, Slovakia)


Richard Flanagan achieved his literary reputation both in Australia and abroad with his first novel Death of a River Guide which depicts a life story of a Tasmanian river guide on the Franklin, Jane, Gordon and other Tasmanian rivers in the context of a complicated network of personal, social, ethnic, historical, and temporal relationships. A personal story of failed love, marriage life and career of Aljaz Cosini turns out to be not only a personal story of an unhappy life of a loser of mixed origins (Aboriginal, European, Australian-Tasmanian) but also a story in which the personal is closely inter-connected with the temporal, spatial, historical and national contexts within which the problem of identity, inter-cultural and interracial relationships is treated. The title of the novel implies almost oxymoronic connotations- the river evoking flow and movement is juxtaposed to death implying closure and ending, at least of the physical and material. The image of a guide suggests the idea of authority and control which is, however, further undermined by the idea of death pointing out the impossibility of control, authority, and stoppage. Thus the title itself invokes a metaphor of a border, or a border zone which is constantly violated, transgressed and interrogated. It is a border between stability and instability, stoppage and movement, life and death, control and freedom, centre and the periphery which Flanagan metaphorizes to deal with the problematic notion of (personal, ethnic, national, cultural) identity and its formation, the implications of colonialism, cultural, ethnic and national relationships.



In his work Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Stuart Hall points out a formation of Caribbean identity and gives a critique of an essentialist notion of it. He understands it as a process rather than a stable entity. In his view,

identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practises then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall 1993: 392).

As he further observes, "there are two kinds of identity, identity as being (which offers a sense of unity and commonality) and identity as becoming (or a process of identification, which shows the discontinuity in our identity formation)" (ibid.).

In Hall’s view, then, in the process of its formation, identity oscillates between unity, coherence, stability and movement, discontinuity, provisionality, and flexibility. Referring to the Caribbean identity and the idea of unity, Hall argues that

our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning[...]This oneness, underlying all the other, more superficial differences, is the truth, the essence, of ‘Caribbeanness’, of the black experience (Hall 1993: 393).

But, at the same time, in his view, "we should not, for a moment, underestimate or neglect the importance of the act of imaginative rediscovery which this conception of a rediscovered, essential identity entails" (393). Hall thus emphasizes the need for a reconsideration of the formation of national identities and their roots and points out their complex, interconnected, discontinuous, and unstable character by arguing that "we cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity,’ without acknowledging its other side- the ruptures and discontinuities which constitute, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’"(394). As he further observes,

cultural identities[...]Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power [...]Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning (395).

Characterizing the complex formation of the Caribbean identity as influenced by European, American and African cultures, he suggests the concept of diasporic identity characterized not by oneness, unity, and stability, but by flow, motion, and difference. In his view,

the diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of 'identity' which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference (401-402).

Stuart Hall’s concept of diasporic identity and hybridity thus points out the complexity of its formation and undermines views of identity that stress its naturally pre-given, unchangeable and essentialist character.

Aljaz Cosini’s position as a guide evokes the idea of control and perhaps even unity and integrity. His status as an experienced river guide secures him both a literal and metaphorical position as a controller, knower, and as a coherent personality. Such a secure and rational position is supported by his reference to his mind as "my rational mind" (Flanagan 1994: 9). In connection with this status, on the macronarrative level, this position of a controller is seemingly further secured by his narrative, mainly about his last river trip as a guide and about his past. This seeming unity, integrity, and control is, however, later undermined by Flanagan’s use of the metaphor of incompleteness and failure: Cosini does not have a permanent job, his daughter dies soon after her birth, his marriage consequently breaks up. This leads to further disintegration of his personality and status resulting, finally, in his inability to rescue two tourists from his group after an accident. The final destruction is completed by his physical, although accidental, death during the rescue operation. Cosini’s personal failure ending with death thus creates a final metaphor of decay, disintegration and cessation of unity, coherence, rationality and control. Disintegration, incoherence and inability to exercise control further create a metaphorical framework for Flanagan’s depiction of his cultural identity. Aljaz is a Tasmanian Australian, but his cultural background is closely connected to both European and Australian cultural traditions. His name suggests an Italian background and his birth was assisted by Maria Magdalena Svevo, a charismatic midwife but, as the narrator argues," whose true name, which she hated, was Ettie Schmitz" (3). Aljaz was born in Trieste in Europe during "the pleasant autumn night air and the stench of the Adriatic flowed in, that peculiarly close European smell of millennia of war and sadness and survival" (3). As Maria Magdalena Svevo’s name and cultural background suggest, she was born into a Christian-Catholic religious family, but in the multicultural environment of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Aljaz was born in the room with "crumbling plaster walls and solitary silverfish-sanded picture of the Madonna touching a bleeding heart with the outstretched fingers of her right hand" (3). Such references to the Holy Virgin convince us that Aljaz belongs to a Christian (Roman) Catholic background.

His mother Sonja is a Slovenian working in Trieste, Italy, and his father is a Tasmanian Australian. Thus from the very moment of his birth Aljaz’s cultural identity is not fixed, stable or unified. Once the borders around his identity are created, they are immediately subverted by Flanagan’s use of metaphors of movement, fluidity, displacement and temporariness. Maria Magdalena Svevo is a European, but later moves to Australia along with Sonja and her family where they become displaced from the European cultural context. Aljaz’s father is almost a professional traveller displaced to Europe, but finally returning to Australia; Aljaz’s wife comes from an Asian background; and in the course of his narrative Aljaz uncovers the history of his suppressed and hidden convict and Aboriginal backgrounds (on his father’s side). Flanagan’s use of metaphors of mobility, travel and displacement undermines not only the idea of fixity but also the idea of the unitary geographical and cultural borders between Europe and Australia as well as between Christian, Asian and Aboriginal religions. Aljaz’s identity thus becomes a composite hybrid consisting of European, Aboriginal and, in a way, of Asian cultural strands. In Stuart Hall’s terminology, his identity becomes diasporic and heterogeneous and formed out of several cultural and religious traditions. Since he finally lives in Australia, he symbolically embodies the process of formation of both the Tasmanian and Australian identities. In the process of the narration, Harry’s multiple narrative voices and those of other narrators reveal the family’s past and cultural background which turn out to be a metaphorical expressions of the formation of both the modern Australian (Tasmanian) identity and the relationship between Europe and Australia.


Europe-Australia (Tasmania)

The European cultural background, history and the past are juxtaposed with Tasmania and the Australian continent in Flanagan’s novel. Europe is represented as a tragic, chaotic and an old-fashioned place, a place of despair. Tasmania and Australia are not presented, however, as simplified positive opposites to it. Although through the depiction of his characters, Flanagan shows Australia (Tasmania) as a place of natural beauties, this image is consequently subverted by his depiction of unromantic nature and environmental pollution caused by modernity and industrialization which goes against nationalist discourse based on the fabrication of the image of the country as a place of natural wonders. European tragic history and its former military and political power as well as its Christian religious tradition are depicted as outdated, vanishing and disintegrating for which Flanagan uses mostly metaphors of travel, disintegration and blankness. Aljaz was born in the city of Trieste in the times of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire symbolized by the double-headed eagle that Maria Magdalena Svevo has on her match-boxes. As Marc Delrez observes in his study of this Flanagan’s novel,

...she is here referring to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was teetering on the border of collapse in Svevo’s time, a feeling especially perceptible in the city of Trieste that was overwhelmingly subject to irredentist yearnings to be united with Italy (Delrez 2005).

Both Maria Magdalena Svevo and later, when living in Australia, even Sonja, Aljaz’s mother, become outdated remnants of the European past out of place in the new cultural environment of Australia. As the narrator says,

Over the years she changed from a young, somewhat wayward and even wild woman who wanted to leave her past behind to one that increasingly wallowed in a past that never existed. She dressed even more conservatively, took up going to church, and kept the house looking like a museum of rundown and recycled Mitteleuropa. She became an old European mama (Flanagan 1994:147).

This passage alludes to a process of the symbolic formation of an identity and the rejection of the essentialist understanding of it. While Sonja is initially depicted as an open-minded person symbolizing the human ability to overcome the essentialism associated with her identity and culture through the literal and symbolic act of departure with a man symbolizing, as a salesman, the new spirit of capitalism which overcomes all cultural and racial boundaries. She, finally, symbolically recuperates the essentialist notion of (the European) identity in a new country by promoting cultural icons associated with it (religion, dressing, her house). She is thus put in the parodic context through which Flanagan points out the inadequacy of both the essentialist notion of identity and the simplistic character of the cultural iconology associated with it as produced by the outside observers. As can be seen from the above passage, her identity is ironically referred to as "recycled" which suggests a mixture of various Central European cultures rather than a unified and coherent cultural background. Unity, coherence, and essentialism associated with identity seem to be inadequate and outdated concepts as is borne out by the imagery of Sonja’s outdatedness which is characterized above. In addition, not only Maria Magdalena Svevo, Harry and Sonja, their son Aljaz, but also other characters literally leave Europe which thus becomes a blank, empty space. The process of formation of an Australian (Tasmanian) identity as symbolized by the travelling and migration of Aljaz’s family and his ancestors from Europe to Australia is not logically completed and the essentialist concept of identity is compensated by simplistic binary oppositions in the new territory. Besides, Harry’s marriage to Sonja points out the symbolic connection of the European and the Australian, the old and the new, and their son acquires a symbolic belief in the possibility of progress and a different conception of identity and life. The new concept of identity seems to symbolically fail which manifests itself in Flanagan’s depiction of marital misunderstandings between Harry and Sonja, between Aljaz and his wife, and, finally, of both Aljaz daughter’s and Aljaz’s death. Despite Aljaz’s death, however, the process of formation of the national or any other identity is, Flanagan seems to suggest, never completed but always moving, fluid, flexible and identity is represented as a mixture of different cultural traditions. In addition to his European background, the other part of Ajlaz’s identity is formed through the recycling of the Australian Aboriginal and convict cultural traditions, white and black, Christian and mythical, vulgar and sophisticated, the boundaries between which are never fixed but rather transitory and moving.

Australia was initially perceived as unsuitable for settlement but nonetheless interesting on account of her natural curiosities including "noble savages" that stimulated scientific curiosity. The Australian cultural tradition was later associated with the idea of the margin, prison, periphery, hostility as well as with the idea of the cultural cringe forming a vulgar, inferior counterpart to Europe. In his book Inventing Australia Richard White argues,

Once convict transportation became reality, a new image of Australia was created, and it was an image which dwelt in the minds of people from an entirely different class to scientists, the philosophers and the leisured class who read their works. For the semi-criminal lumpen proletariat, for the conventional middle class who feared them, and for the broad British working class, musings about the oddities of nature and new empires in the Pacific were irrelevant to daily life. For them, the image of Australia was summed up by Botany Bay, and later by the even more horrific places of secondary punishment... (White 1981: 16-17).

The convicts and the Aborigines have often been marginalized, standing on the periphery of culture rather than in its centre. The image of the Aborigines was associated with the idea of nature and the concept of the noble savage but mostly understood as an inferior and other, non-Christian counterpart to both the European and the white Australian. The convicts represented the cultural margins of society, a violent and cruel deviation from the norm and standards of behaviour. Since Australia became a penal colony, the image of the country as a prison in an isolated and distant land dominated the popular imagination for a long time. In addition, the convicts’ lack of education initiated the formation of the image of Australia as a vulgar and vernacular country. Although during most of his narrative Aljaz is not aware of his status or of his convict and Aboriginal ancestry, he is depicted as a representative of both marginality and a combination of convict vernacular and Aboriginal spirituality and intuition. To become recognized, he should identify with the cultural norm (white, Christian, rational) which he always intuitively resists, and thus he oscillates between the cultural centre and the periphery. His potential role of a father, husband, and later a river guide would secure him a symbolic role at the centre but this role is always postponed and undermined. He fails as a husband, his role as a father remains unfulfilled since his daughter dies shortly after her birth, and he finally fails as a river guide as he is unable to save tourists in his group. In addition, his travelling, mobility and unstable, temporary jobs cast him into a position of eternal fluidity and movement rather than stability, a position that refuses the stability, border, rationality and control characteristic of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. His grandmother Rose represents a similar symbolic dilemma of belonging. She is characterized as "old, even ancient" but also "vaguely oriental" (Flanagan 1994:50). Her Aboriginal and convict ancestry is thus deliberately suppressed and neglected. The narrator argues,

her mother was a woman of some culture, who could read most beautifully and movingly from the Scriptures and who even was a friend of musicians...her grandfather Ned Quade had once been a mayor of the mainland town of Parramatta... (Flanagan 1994: 51).

The narrator further adds, "Rose believed there was nothing so shameful as having convict blood, and in her family she was not alone in this opinion" (52). Rose further comments on her brothers as having prestigious jobs and thus social position but, at the same time, the narrator argues that "like much that Rose said about her family, it was a half-truth" (52). This casts her into the position of an unreliable narrator, that is also an inventor and fabricator of her own identity. It further produces a symbolic allusion to the artificiality of creation and understanding of identity. Rose as well as her family and other characters oscillate in the space in between, in the borderzone between rationality and irrationality, marginality and centrality, stability and movement.



As Stuart Hall argues, cultural identity "is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth" (395). In his view, as suggested above, identity is never fixed but rather consisting of an ongoing "play of differences" (396). In Hall’s view, "this cultural ‘play’ could not therefore be represented[...]as a simple, binary opposition- ‘past/present’, ‘them/us’. Its complexity exceeds this binary structure of representation" (396). Flanagan’s use of the imagery of water, magical, fantastic, intertextual and metafictional elements as well as of fragmentary composition contributes to the formation of a multilayered narrative which undermines the narrative stability, binary oppositions, simplistic schematization of the concept of identity and border. Aljaz, the narrator, refers to his rationality which evokes the reliability of his narration but, at the same time, he undermines it through his multiple self-observing narrative and various statements betraying the irrationality and unreliability of his story. He says that "I must be fantasizing" (2), and that "I have been granted visions [...] I have entered the realm of the fabulous, of hallucinations, for there is not way that anybody stuck drowning could experience such things" (9). He finally adds that "the rational mind is not persuaded by the knowledge - my knowledge - that everything I am seeing is true, that everything I see has happened" (9-10).

Furthermore, a combination of the first and third person narrative voices within one single character (Aljaz) provides the author with the possibility of further depiction of the relative status of identity and his detachement from the essentialist view. The combination of these juxtaposed narrative voices can be seen in the following extract:

I watch the moon reach its zenith then slowly fall into the darkness of the pre-dawn hour. I watch the beginning of the morning of the second day [...] And I watch myself awaken. Aljaz knuckled the sockets of his eyes. He ran his hands down under the roughening skin of his cheeks to join together at his chin... (30).

The combination of the first and the third person narrative voices provides Flanagan with a space for the reconsideration of the boundaries between the past and present, materiality and spirituality, life and death. Through this strategy he expresses his detachment from any essentializing concept of identity. The first person narrative seems to be referring to the present and future perspectives, and the third person narrative evokes the idea of the narrative control associated with the omniscient narrative voice (traditionally understood as authoritarian) refers to the past while pretending to be ignorant of the future. The reliability of this narrative is, however, undermined by the above mentioned doubts, concepts of fantasy and visions Aljaz claims to have. Temporality thus loses its chronological, hierarchical and logical status and becomes united through a concept of relativity, provisionality, and spirituality. This breaking up of the binary oppositions and boundaries between the past and the present, life and death, rationality and irrationality is further developed through the imagery of water and conception/creation. Water evokes the idea of life and creation. In Flanagan’s novel, in a Sternian fashion, Aljaz describes his own birth out of his mother’s womb, which is full of water; he becomes a river guide and, finally, literally identifies with water by drowning in it. Aljaz’s physical death thus does not mean a definite end, but, symbolically, the end of a chronological concept of time and understanding of life and death as seen from a rationalist perspective. It also evokes the idea of the beginning and a conception of cyclical time uniting physical materiality with nature and spirit, past and present, and life and death. The idea of conception and creation is referred to through numerous intertextual allusions as analyzed by Marc Delrez, for example.(1 ) In addition, Maria Magdalena Svevo’s presence at Aljaz’s birth evokes the idea of a connection between writing and conception (Svevo, an Italian writer of mixed origins living on the verge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) through the strategy of which Flanagan points out the fabrication, unreliability, relativity and fictionality of any identity created in the process of linguistic representation and narrative of any kind. The image of the river which Aljaz finally literally identifies with is not only a symbol of the identification of a man with nature, or with Aljaz’s other, hidden, Aboriginal identity, but also with a concept of fluidity and relativity related to the concept of identity. Thus Aljaz’s final "spiritual" meeting with his Aboriginal ancestors after his death does not suggest a simplistic appreciation of the Aboriginal identity as opposed to the white, rational, Judeo-Christian one, but rather the appreciation of transitoriness, complexity, and the contextual character of identity since the river’s course represents an eternal movement.

As Marc Delrez argues,

Flanagan’s novel can indeed be seen to appropriate some of the stereotypical attributes of Aboriginal spirituality- like, for example the ability, evinced by the main character, to receive messages from the wind, or to identify with the spirit of an animal (such as the sea eagle) (Delrez 2005).



In his novel Death of a River Guide, Richard Flanagan uses postmodern narrative techniques such as intertextuality, metafictional elements, fragmentariness, postmodern parody and other devices that destabilize and undermine not only the narrative system based on the mimetic principle that evokes the idea of authority, rationality, control and stability, but also essentialism related to such narratives, cultural identity and the stereotypicality of its formation. Australian identity, formerly understood as coherent and stable, is depicted as fluid, transitory, hybrid, a composite of European, white Australian, Judeo-Christian and Aboriginal strands. Through the use of intertextuality and metafictional elements Flanagan points out the complicated process of identity formation and produces an implicit critique of clichéd stereotypes as well as of the exclusion of marginalized groups from the concept of Australian identity. At the same time, Flanagan stresses the importance of different cultural traditions as represented by Europe and Australia. All this is mostly achieved through the author’s depiction of Aljaz, the main character, and the imagery of fragmentariness and travelling related to this character that enhances the idea of hybridity.

© Jaroslav Kušnír (The University of Prešov, Slovakia)

This paper is a part of the research project KEGA 3-3136-05 sponsored by the Slovak Ministry of Education.


(1) Delrez, Marc. "Nationalism, Reconciliation, and the Cultural Genealogy of Magic in Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide"- unpublished paper presented at the EAAS conference ReVisions of Australia: Histories, Images, Identities held in Debrecen, 20-24 September 2005, University of Debrecen, Hungary.


Delrez, Marc. "Nationalism, Reconciliation, and the Cultural Genealogy of Magic in Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide"- unpublished paper presented at the EAAS conference ReVisions of Australia: Histories, Images, Identities held in Debrecen, 20-24 September 2005, University of Debrecen, Hungary

Flanagan, Richard. Death of a River Guide. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Hall, Stuart."Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Williams, Patrick, Chrisman, Laura (eds.). Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. A Reader. New York: Harvester&Wheatsheaf, 1993. 392-403.

Hall, Stuart."Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Available at <>. 5 December 2005.

White, Richard. Inventing Australia. Images and Experience 1688-1980. Sydney: Allen&Unwin, 1981.

Williams, Patrick, Chrisman, Laura (eds.). Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. A Reader. New York: Harvester&Wheatsheaf, 1993.

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

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Jaroslav Kušnír (The University of Prešov, Slovakia ): Border Zones in Richard Flanagan´s Fiction (Death of a River Guide, 1994). In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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