Published in 1997, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is author Richard Flanagan’s second novel (following on from Death of a River Guide, 1994). It is regarded as something of an Australian classic.
Set in his native Tasmania, Flanagan tells the story of Sonja and the tempestuous, often violent, relationship she has with her alcoholic father, Bojan Buloh. Having left home at the age of 16, Sonja has returned from her lonely Sydney life to the island ‘at the arse-end of the world.’ Thirty-five years earlier, Sonja’s mother had walked out of the forest cabin they called home never to be seen again.
It’s a haunting, tragic tale of loss and a desperate need for a sense of place and belonging: a lament for things past.
A time-fractured narrative provides a 30-year time span as the 38 year-old Sonja returns to Tasmania for the first time in 22 years. She has not been in touch with her father since the day she walked out of their home.
A post-war Eastern European migrant, Bojan and his wife, Maria, witnessed first-hand the violent Nazi occupation of their Slovenian homeland along with the equally traumatic liberation by the Russian Red Army. Escaping to the west, they eventually settled in Tasmania where the various massive state hydroelectric schemes in the 1950s created huge demands for labour. European migrants in the thousands found themselves in makeshift camps in the dense rainforests, isolated from the rest of the world and each other with their silence of the horrors of shared experiences.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Bojan continues to survive as a loner in such camps. No personal possessions, no friends, poor English, the ghosts of the past laid low with the aid of the demon drink. A living death, it is Sonja’s return and the slow intrusion of the past, its shadows and its occasional glimpses of light and laughter that provide hope.
Sonja herself is unsure why she has returned, but her empty life in Sydney ultimately has no pull. Like her father before her, Sonja’s sense of displacement is palpable. Whether it is 1954, 1960 or 1989, Sonja has no sense of ‘home’, no sense of belonging.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a heartbreaking story of deeply damaged people destroyed by circumstance, history and their own inabilities to cope with the hand fate has dealt them. Geography also plays a key part – the brooding, menacing forest-scape of Tasmania is interchangeable with the war-torn forests of Europe: the seemingly constant rains (or snow): the occasional glimpses of blue skies providing hope or redemption.
But much of the impact of The Sound of One Hand Clapping is undone by its structure – 86 chapters over 425 pages. Staccato in time (the chapters jump from 1954 to 1989 to 1967 to 1954) creates a staccato flow of emotion and narrative, breaking up the story too much to feel any real empathy with the characters themselves.
The non-specific story of displaced refugees from a war-torn Europe, finding a new home in a foreign country where they are not welcome is a sadly universal one. How each individual deals with the sense of loss of their previous life and events witnessed, again can be traumatic. But no matter how poetic (and at times it is beautifully so) Flanagan’s writing is, I found Sonja and Bojan non-empathic as central characters to a book that is, to a large extent, reliant on an investment of emotion, sympathy and empathy.
Shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award, The Sound of One Hand Clapping lost out to Peter Carey’s retelling of Great Expectations, Jack Maggs.