The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Richard Flanagan


Why do we read? For different reasons probably, though we’re all very passionate about it. Do we read, and of course I mean do we read fiction, to be beguiled by stories, to while away the time, or to see revealed truths we had not previously considered? Or for some other reason. Ex-Mrs Legend – and I must remark here that this month marks 40 years since we met over books which we have shared and argued about ever since – berates me for my insistence on authenticity in my narrators, a subject which I suspect you too barely tolerate.

But to put it baldly, I think a novel with an inauthentic narrator is a novel into which the author has not put their heart. And that brings me to Richard Flanagan. Flanagan was born in 1961 of Irish stock and grew up in a mining town on the remote and rugged Tasmanian west coast. He has a M Litt in History from Oxford and his father was a prisoner of war on the Burma Railway.

Richard Flanagan knows Tasmania, he is a literary writer of some merit, he can tell a story.

Richard Flanagan is not a woman, and he is not a Slovenian refugee from World War II, but these are the characters he chooses for his protagonists in The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), his second novel.

Briefly, in 1954 a woman walks out of a workers hut into the snow, disappearing into the forest in deepest Tasmania, leaving behind her three year old daughter Sonja. The woman, Maria, was the wife of Bojan Buloh. They had married after the War and been accepted as refugees into Australia where Bojan was a labourer on the construction of dams for the Hydro.

Bojan is an alcoholic and violent. Sonja as a child is sometimes in his care – when he has work in Hobart – and is sometimes farmed out. At 16 she walks out on him, ending up in Sydney. Twenty something years later she returns to Hobart, seeking out old friends. It transpires that she’s pregnant, we hear much of her and Bojan’s back stories, they make contact, he’s still an alcoholic and it goes on from there.

This novel, and this novelist, are liked by lots of people, are almost certainly liked by most of you. But not me – not this novel anyway (if I remember correctly, I didn’t mind Gould’s Book of Fish). The principal protagonist is in fact the woman Sonja, and some of the things that Flanagan attempts I found risible – describing what she likes during sex, being pregnant, her waters breaking, having a baby, I laughed out loud when his (sorry, her) nipples began to leak at about 8 months. This is bullshit, stuff he’s read somewhere just the same as I have, what can he possibly have to tell me about being a woman? What he can he possibly have to tell you?

Sonja is ten years older than Flanagan himself, so Bojan is a good generation older. The descriptions of fifties and sixties Tasmania are researched, albeit informed by his and his family’s lived experience, even so he gets stuff wrong. Someone has told him that slowing down in an FJ (1950s Holden car) slows down the windscreen wipers, when in fact they actually slow down when the car accelerates.

I admit that Flanagan living where he did would have met or observed men like Bojan but why write a novel from Bojan’s, let alone his daughter’s, perspective? AS Patric demonstrates in Black Rock White City (here) that whatever we Anglos (or Celts) think, the lives of migrants/refugees out of war zones are complicated in ways that we can only dimly understand.

So, we get back to ‘why do we read fiction?’. We read light fiction and genre fiction for entertainment, to pass the time. The author creates an environment, sets up a scenario within that environment and brings it to a (hopefully) logical conclusion. In SF those scenarios might sometimes be read as a metaphor for the real world, and of course genre and literary fiction have very porous boundaries, but if the writer follows the rules of the world they have established then we are satisfied. We are entertained.

But is that why we read literary fiction? I think not. Literary fiction that is not just about the writing itself, tells a story not necessarily even with a beginning or an end but just a slice of one or more lives, with the intention of making us think about life or an aspect of life. And in my opinion, any genuine insight by the author can only arise out of their lived experience.

Flanagan is a fine story teller, but for as long as he remains unwilling to invest himself in his fiction (and I gather that at last he does in First Person) then he is just writing entertainments. We should not give his ‘insights’ in The Sound of One Hand Clapping any more credence than we give Helen Darville’s (Demidenko) in The Hand that Signed the Paper.


Richard Flanagan, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1997. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2012. Read by Humphrey Bower

see also:

Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Richard Flanagan, First Person (here)

My brief thoughts on Flanagan’s The Road to the Deep North (here)


11 thoughts on “The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Richard Flanagan

  1. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. The only thing I will say is that I think you’re wrong to say that the author had not put heart into his writing. Flanagan has always put his heart and soul into championing the disempowered, and while we might say now, in the C21st, that Slovenian refugees and women have every opportunity to tell their stories for themselves, that was not so in 1977. The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a book of its own era, forty years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never been comfortable with men writing as women – from way back when as a teenager I read Jack London apologizing for the poor job he made of being a woman in The Iron Heel. But I guess you’re right about ‘Slovenians’ and forty years ago. Now, I must read First Person.


      • But why would you do that if you know you’re probably not going to like it? I can’t stand Helen Garner, and only once have I reviewed one of her books. I did it because I thought it was necessary to be part of the conversation, but I’ve since realised that it’s just not a conversation I’m interested in. I don’t read her books and I don’t read reviews of her work either…


      • I do think this is denying writer’s ability to imagine, but we’ve discussed this before (and I do have provisos in my own argument re power imbalances) so let’s not go there! My Taswegian brother has very mixed feelings about Flanagan and I think it’s this one and Death of a river guide, or one of these two that particularly set him off. (I keep forgetting, though have asked him a few times.) I haven’t read these first two of his, but have liked all I’ve read except for The unknown terrorist which I forgive because I suspect he had another audience in mind.


  2. I agree with your assessment, Bill. I’ve often found Flanno’s fiction to be a bit hollow & couldn’t understand the fuss around this book. But I do think his political writing is great.


    • Good to see you down here Jess. I think Flanagan frustrates me because he writes well but from what I have read he chooses to tell his stories from the outside, and with an emphasis on action over thought. The frenzied car driving sequences in this novel and The Road to the Deep North seem totally out of place in literary fiction, That’s why I’m looking forward to First Person, if he’s telling it as insider, which I think he is.


  3. Sue, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think I might get on a different hobby horse next year, though I suppose that the relation of the author to their text will always inform how I feel about it. I just read the Guardian review of The Unknown Terrorist – Flanagan although a genuine literary writer seems drawn to action sequences. He’s a puzzle, to me anyway.


  4. I used to think that a person could carefully and considerately write experiences that are not their own, but once I started my fat fiction challenge and noticed that thin women writing fat women lean on stereotypes–that fat women are miserable, jealous, self-conscious, incapable, secret eaters.


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