To my mind, great literature is best defined by the visceral reaction it triggers and its stubborn lingering effect. After the plot has faded, the names of the characters erased, and the book itself diminished by passing time into a sort of vague mental snapshot of its encounter, the way a great novel makes you feel while you read it cuts a kind of indelible groove that resonates long after the cover is closed. That is not only fine writing: that is art. And that is the art in the novels crafted by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan.
My first encounter with Flanagan was Gould’s Book of Fish, a stunningly original and brilliant blend of satire, heartache, love, cruelty, comedy, and existential tragedy, tossed with a superb use of magical realism. Think William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Irving, all stirring the same pot with different shaped spoons. Originally published in 2001, I consider it the finest novel of the millennium to date. I have since read five of the six books Flanagan has written, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. *
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a much earlier work, published in 1997. The central character is Sonja Buloh, a strong but troubled woman in her late-thirties who returns to her birthplace in Tasmania. The novel’s title–adapted from the famous Zen kōan–evokes the bleak narrative that marked the formative years of Sonja’s life, abandoned at three years old by a mother who disappears into a blizzard, and thereafter shuttled between various temporary households by her often alcoholic and sometimes violent father, Bojan Bojan, a Slovenian immigrant whose parenting ranges from adoration to abuse. Flourishing a technique reminiscent of André Brink in A Chain of Voices, Flanagan skillfully moves between moments in time without losing anchor to the present, exploring Sonja’s childhood and, significantly, Bojan’s young manhood, which smacks of memories littered with atrocities and corpses of Nazis and Slovenian partisans. This is a book of much tragedy, of much disappointment, yet also one of hope and redemption. There is just a hint of the magical realism later manifested Gould’s Book of Fish. But there is here, as in all of Flanagan’s fiction, an abundance of fine prose as well as a masterful use of the objective correlative–a literary device that conjures emotion in the inanimate–often seen in the works of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping has much of the feel of a first novel, although it is not. Flanagan’s first novel was the magnificent Death of a River Guide, which was no doubt a hard act to follow. ** One Hand Clapping seems rougher and less sophisticated than River Guide. There are portions that seem extraneous and beg for edit. It can be slow-going, especially because the elements that make you want to care about the characters are not fully fleshed out until the last third of the book. On more than one occasion there is the thud of the anticlimactic dully falling flat. And yet …
And yet the quality of the prose never disappoints; warts-and-all this is a novel that generously rewards the reader for patience and loyalty to the narrative. After it is done, there remains a powerful urge to read it through again. There are few writers of contemporary literary fiction that can deliver at this level, something a review like this can certainly attest but by all rights demands to be heard in Flanagan’s own voice:
In the great forests beyond, the devils and quolls and possums and potaroos and wombats and wallabies also came to curious life in the night, and they roamed the earth for what little they could scavenge to keep themselves alive, and when they mistakenly ventured onto the new gravel roads that were everywhere invading their world, it was to be mesmerised by the sudden shock of moving electric light that rendered them no longer an element of the great forests or plains, but a poor pitiful creature alone whose fate it was to be crushed between rubber and metal. Having being shown by the electric light to have no existence or meaning or world beyond a glaring outline upon the gravel, each animal was killed easily by the men who drove drunk to and from their place of work, heading to or from the whores and grog and the card games of the bigger towns. By day the roads were speckled red with the resultant carnage and startled hawks feasting on the carcasses would hastily rise into the air dragging rapidly unravelling viscera behind them, a shock of bloodied intestine stretching across the blue sky as if the world itself were wounded. Jiri had told Bojan some people believed that the animals reincarnated as spirits or other animals or even as people. But when Bojan hit a fellow animal he hoped he had done it a favour and relieved it of the burden of life forever. [p268-69]
That is great literature. That is art. That is why, even if it is not his finest novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping should be penciled into everyone’s to-be-read list.
* I reviewed The Narrow Road to the Deep North here: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/
** I reviewed Death of a River Guide here: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/