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Posts tagged ‘Richard Flanagan’

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

 

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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.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book.*

Secondly, don’t be put off because most of the story takes place during World War 2. I avoid war novels and wouldn’t have read The Narrow Road to the Deep North had I realised what the setting was before starting, but as it turned out, I read most of this emotionally draining, gruelling story with a huge lump in my throat. There were times I had to stop reading because I was feeling too much to continue. I can list other books which have made me feel this way with just the fingers on one hand.

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare, and as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, on more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

And lastly, don’t be put off by the beginning of the book which doesn’t do justice to the rest of the story. It also took me a while to get used to quotation marks not being used to differentiate dialogue within the text.

He was your cobber?

Like all immigrants, he seemed to have an erring instinct for the oldest, truest words in his new language.

The story follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who for most of the book is a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burmese Railway. The story is interspersed with the story of Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, who for Dorrigo, no other woman ever lived up to. Later, the story switches to Dorrigo’s life after the war.

The stories of the Australian POWs while building what became known as the Death Railway in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are harrowing, but the story does not treat the characters with pity. Instead, I realised that the POWs themselves had no room in their quest for their own survival for pity, either for themselves or for anyone else, although that didn’t mean that they didn’t show kindness to each other, generosity and a spirit which made me feel overwhelmingly patriotic at times (for an Australian society which no longer exists).

“Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do anything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love–all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.”

The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is interesting, in that their cruelty to the POWs is shown to be the only way they can behave and still be Japanese.

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”

I’m taking a break from reading for a few days because I’m not ready for another story yet, as The Narrow Road to the Deep North still has too strong a hold of my heart and imagination. And yes, I’ll be working my way through other books by Richard Flanagan soon.

*My reading tastes can be quite low-brow, I often enjoy books that critics bag out, and dislike books they praise.

Happy Australia Day, everyone.

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