14 April, 2008

'The Sound of One Hand Clapping' - Richard Flanagan

The Sound of One Hand Clapping etches the story of Sonja Buloh and her destructive, catastrophic relationship with her father, Bojan. The novel oscillates between two timeframes. The earlier location stretches from mid-fifties to mid-sixties, and is set amongst a group of European immigrants working on a hydro-electric site in Tasmania, during which time Sonja's mother leaves her three-year-old daughter one snowy night, never to be heard of again. In 1989, Sonja returns to Tasmania, after 23 years of her own unbroken estrangement from her father.

The novel is heavy, very heavy, on motifs and imagery. It is a rare piece in that the central relationship is between father and daughter. The exchanges between Sonja and Bojan are frequently brutal, both physically and emotionally. Despite the anger, spite, and unbearable miscommunications, however, a bond remains. Just as Bojan and his workmates cannot separate themselves from their respective homelands, despite thoughts of their former homes conjuring images of torture and war, nor can he and his daughter ultimately extricate themselves from one another.

Bojan lives a rootless life, as he fails to integrate himself into the Australian culture. Sonja, similarly, marches through a life deliberately devoid of a significant relationship with another man. Each grip instead onto aspects of the land. For Bojan, water and wood are constant motifs. His emotions are dammed, just as is the river where he was laying concrete when his wife disappeared. He crafts his feelings into wooden furniture, made from Huon pine, an elusive, almost inexplicably strong material, forged in the wilds of an island that has broken many willing and unwilling refugees. Sonja returns herself to the earth, either physically at the site of the camp where she grew up, or in dreams where she imagines the feel of blades of grass on her body.

The images are well-chosen, but many of Flanagan's techniques in this book are overblown and his style overwritten. There is an excessive use of adjectives throughout the novel: "The noise manifested itself as flesh in the form of a large, brown-uniformed woman slashing through the green curtain"; "A pair of translucent plastic gloves peeled off and fell into the alligator mouth of a bright yellow bin". At times, too, the similes are cliched, but then Flanagan redeems himself with something wonderful, for example rain on a window "like tears" is followed by a sunrise "like a rainbow trout". Sometimes extended descriptions lose their perspective: a character sees a raindrop fall on a tulip from some distance; or rain changing from soothing to oppressing within a passage. In the sections set in the past, Flanagan often begins with generic stories, describing repeated events, which then morph into a recount of a specific event that has bearing on the tale, a particularly frustrating technique.

While it is overwritten, the novel is not poorly written. It evokes a place - Tasmania - that remains mysterious even for many who live in the same country. It takes that powerful force of isolation and chaos that Tasmania holds - the island that offered prisons within prisons, an island of "wild, mad [weather], its reason lost somewhere out in the aching emptiness of the fish-fat sea" - and thrusts it upon characters whose lives have seen too much turmoil to have the strength to try and tame their new home. All of the relationships in this novel are fraught, often with an excess of affection that remains dammed as unnaturally as the Tasmanian river.

See also by Richard Flanagan: 'The Unknown Terrorist'

No comments:

Post a Comment