I’ve been keen to read The Sound of One Hand Clapping since reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan, but also putting it off, as I was expecting a misery-fest. I wasn’t far wrong. This story is beautifully written, but so sad…
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is the story of a migrant father and daughter living in a remote part of Tasmania during the 1950’s. Bojan Buloh came to Australia for a new life after leaving Slovenia after World War 2, where he witnessed and was the victim of atrocities which I found hard to read about. In Tasmania Bojan met Maria, the love of his life, and married her. They had a daughter, Sonja.
When Sonja was three years old, Maria, who had also come from Slovenia after the war, walked out into the snow with a cardboard suitcase packed with her life’s treasures, leaving Bojan to bring up Sonja alone.
In Tasmania, Bojan found himself building dams, back-breaking, unskilled work, alongside other European migrants with similar background stories to his. He drank heavily, and found himself unable to live the normal, boring life Australians were known for and which he had wished for. When he drank, Bojan verbally and physically abused Sonja. The abuse continued throughout her childhood and teenage years.
Sonja was farmed out from time to time to live with other people, but she always ended up back with Bojan. When she was old enough she left home and went to Sydney and did not return to visit her father until the late 1980’s, when she was in her mid-thirties and pregnant.
For the story of a father and daughter who are migrants struggling to communicate their horror and loss to each other, their community or their adopted nation, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is an extraordinarily wordy, descriptive story which needs to be concentrated on and read carefully in order to be understood.
I struggled reading about Bojan’s brutality towards Sonja, all the while knowing that they loved each other. Somehow, he and Sonja accepted his violent behaviour as a cry for relief from his memories of the war in Slovenia, from losing his wife and from being unable to articulate his feelings about his soul-less work, the remote location so different from what they had hoped for and for his drinking. Understandably though, as an adult, Sonja also struggled with becoming emotionally close to anyone.
Bojan was hard on himself too, berating himself for being an illiterate ‘wog’, a derogatory term for migrants from Europe after WW2. These days ‘wog’ is an affectionate term (noting that in Australia people from ethnic backgrounds have long since claimed it for themselves), but in the 1950’s the term was an insult. Bojan was also well-aware that his behaviour was brutal and unacceptable, but he and Sonja never verbally acknowledged this, although thankfully they did find a way to face their future as a father and daughter.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a terribly sad story. Right now, I’m not sure if I can face anything else by Richard Flanagan despite the beauty of his writing.