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Wild Thing

THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING: A Novel; By Richard Flanagan; Atlantic Monthly Press: 426 pp., $24

March 12, 2000|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the author of "Alexander to Actium" and "The Laughter of Aphrodite." He is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

Despite reason and common sense, the Antipodes retain a kind of upside-down weirdness for many of us in the northern hemisphere. Australia is not only Down Under but home to alien creatures with odd names and idiosyncratic anatomies: quolls, potaroos, wombats, wallabies, platypuses. The continent crouches in our atlas like one of its own marsupials, with Tasmania as its snout.

It is postwar Tasmania that forms the setting for Richard Flanagan's heart-wrenching and beautifully written novel "The Sound of One Hand Clapping," and he makes it every bit as scarily outlandish as our most outrageous fantasies. Here is a land of wild forests and raging rivers, where nature takes on man with zest, bursting his dams and searing civilization to cinders with monstrous bush fires.

Against this background, Flanagan explores the tragic story of one immigrant Slovenian family, moving back and forth in time between the mid-'50s to the present. For Bojan and Maria Buloh and their daughter Sonja, Tasmania proves upside-down with a vengeance. "We came to Australia to be free," Bojan says, with bitter irony; but the reality they find has more than one sort of Tasmanian devil waiting to claim the weak or the unwary. To native-born Aussies, the immigrants are known, contemptuously, as "wogs" or "reffos" and regarded (this being the non-PC '50s) as only one short jump ahead of aborigines. The men work at hard, dangerous and demeaning jobs for little money; they mostly live in squalor and their one release is to get blind drunk in all-male bars. Their women are virtual squaws, bearing too many children and struggling to keep up minimal domestic standards in cheap and ugly accommodation.

But these displaced Poles, Czechs and Yugoslavs have something worse to cope with than the grinding poverty of their present, and that is the break up, in the anarchic destruction brought by war, of their entire past. They have lost their homes, their social cohesion, their birthright of nation and language. Australian food and customs repel them. The English they learn is a crude vernacular cobbled together, like some ugly necklace, with the endlessly, monotonously repeated F-word. Their memories form a nightmarish sequence of over-exposed snapshots: rape, wanton violence, senseless destruction, bloodshed. In turn, and inevitably, they take on these lineaments themselves, till the only protection against the combined agonies of past and present is anesthesia, a numbing of the senses, a refusal to feel. The Bulohs and the rest of them are, in a very literal sense, the walking wounded from World War II.

Maria, too splintered to survive life in a hydroelectric construction camp, walks out into the snow (like the gallant Captain Oates on a failed Scots polar expedition in 1912), never to return. Her going irrevocably sears both Bojan and Sonja: There's an extra-grisly twist to it that we learn only at the end, and which, in retrospect, explains the intensity of suffering that marks their crippled survival. Bojan spirals into alcoholism and violence: Each man, as Wilde taught us, kills the thing he loves, and Bojan, in agony at her silence, beats up dumb obstinate Sonja till her blood spatters the walls. Sonja in turn smashes up everything that could reopen her feelings: her treasured dolls' tea-service and the budding relationship between her father and kind delightful Jean, who can offer him a cottage and apple orchard. She leaves Bojan, works in the city, has joyless affairs, aborts two pregnancies.

There's unfinished business here to spare. Maria's walk-out, Bojan's somehow related violence, recur obsessionally in Sonja's memory. Then, just as we've given up hope, Flanagan, without the least hint of sentimentalism, springs one small daring surprise on us after another. After the bush fire, green shoots return. In these crippled and alienated victims, tenderness seeps slowly through the thick scar tissue. Against all her rational defenses, Sonja decides to let her third pregnancy run to term. Bojan the skilled cabinet-maker, old and shaky now, builds a beautiful crib and finds it does his heart more good than beer. He and Sonja's friends secretly modernize the shabby peeling shack she's rented. Even the dolls' teapot is lovingly put together again. It's a shaky happy ending, but its very fragility, against overwhelming odds, makes it real as well as moving.

This novel is a rare and remarkable achievement. Given its subject matter it could have been as grittily depressing as anything by Zola or Orwell, yet somehow, amid all the relentless squalor, what Orwell called the "crystal spirit" shines indomitably through. Flanagan blends a strong yet delicate psychological sensibility with the kind of sharp, vivid, original prose more common in good poets. His outcasts really got past my emotional guard.

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