Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 425 pages; 1997.
I seem to be on a roll with Australian books. This one, my third in a matter of weeks, is by Richard Flanagan, who first came to international prominence with Gould’s Book of Fish, which I read several years ago and loved very much. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2002.
Prior to this Flanagan had written two other novels: Death of a River Guide, in 1994, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, in 1997. Like Gould’s Book of Fish, both are set in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, where the author resides.
At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.
This is a book that possesses a strangely heady mix of bleakness and despair, tempered by moments of clarity and joy. Initially I wrestled with the writing style, because Flanagan is prone to overly-long sentences that sometimes so twist and bend out of shape you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster:
In that long Autumn of 1959, when elsewhere the world was sensing change so big and hard in its coming that it was like the trembling of the earth announcing the arrival of a yet to be seen locomotive, in that month of April in the city of Hobart, nothing much looked like it could ever change around a town that had grown used to never being anything but the arse end of everything: mean, hard and dirty, where civic ambition meant buying up old colonial buildings and bulldozing them quick and covering the dust promptly with asphalt for cars most people were yet to own, where town pride meant tossing any unlucky ferro found lying in the park into the can, and where a sense of community equated with calling anybody with skin darker than fair a boong bastard unless he worse snappy clothes in which case he was a filthy wog bastard — in that month of April when the cold slowly began its winter’s journey, spreading its way down over weeks from the mountain’s steel-blue flanks, on an early Saturday morning, an FJ was wending its way through the scummy back streets of north Hobart to the home of Umberto Picotti.
And it can be hard to get a foothold on the essence of the story when the narrative is non-linear, shunting backwards and forwards in time, and told from two different perspectives.
But in many ways this is what makes The Sound of One Hand Clapping such a wonderfully rich and beguiling read. Hypnotic and unbearably sad in places, it’s a very human tale about two people locked together by a shared past who struggle to rise above the pain of their circumstances.
The story begins in 1954 when Slovenian couple Bojan and Maria Buloh, both scarred by the horrors of the Second World War, immigrate to Australia. Bojan, along with hundreds of other European immigrants, finds work as a labourer on a construction project to build a massive hydroelectric dam in the rugged Tasmanian highlands. Here the weather is harsh and living conditions primitive. One stormy evening Maria packs her bags and leaves her husband and three-year-old daughter Sonja behind. She is never seen alive again.
What enfolds over the next 35 years is essentially the nub of this compelling novel. Bojan drowns his grief in drink and struggles to make a decent life for his daughter. Sonja, unbearably miserable, eventually flees to the mainland. It is only when she is about to become a mother herself that she decides to re-establish contact, returning to Tasmania to make amends with her now elderly father. Her life’s story is then told in a series of flashbacks intercut with chapters from Bojan’s point of view.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a book about new beginnings that shatters the myth of Australia as the “lucky country”. It does not shy away from presenting white Australians as uncouth, uncultured and racist at a period in the country’s history at which immigration was running at an all-time high. For that reason alone, it is a refreshing — and challenging — read.
This critically acclaimed novel won the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel, the 1999 ABA Australian Book of the Year Prize and was shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award. It was made into a film directed by Richard Flanagan in 1998.