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© Bella Stander

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"Bedeviled in Tasmania"
San Francisco Chronicle
May 21, 2000

The Sound of One Hand Clapping
by Richard Flanagan
(Atlantic Monthly)

English Passengers
by Matthew Kneale
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

by Bella Stander

Mention Tasmania and most Americans will think of the Tasmanian Devil--the Looney Tunes character, not even the real animal--and maybe, if they're of a certain age, Errol Flynn, the antipodean island's most famous native son. Such thoughts are quickly banished by the novels The Sound of One Hand Clapping and English Passengers, both set in Tasmania, though in different centuries.

Close observation of character in these works is anything but cartoonish, and the often brutal action is a sad, ironic contrast to Flynn's swashbuckling heroics. The books take a similar narrative approach by going back and forth in time through various characters' viewpoints. But any resemblances end there, as it would be hard to find two novels more different in voice, plot and pacing.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping seems an odd title for a novel about World War II survivors laboring on public works projects in the Tasmanian wilderness. Rather than referring to the path of enlightenment, the phrase here evokes loss and displacement, the twin themes of this beautiful if crushing novel.

Tasmanian resident Flanagan, whose film based on this work has been released in Australia and Germany, reveals the book's purpose in a prefatory quote from Ivo Andric, datelined Sarajevo, 1946: "Here, as in Belgrade, I see in the streets a considerable number of young women whose hair is greying. . . . Their faces are tormented, but still young. . . . Nothing could speak more clearly to future generations about our times than these youthful grey heads, from which the nonchalance of youth has been stolen. Let them at least have a memorial in this little note."

Flanagan's memorial begins in 1954, "long, long ago in a world that has since perished into peat, in a forgotten winter on an island of which few have ever heard. It began in that time before snow, completely and irrevocably, covers footprints." The footprints are those of a young Slovenian woman, Maria Buloh, who one night leaves her 3-year-old daughter Sonja alone in their hut in a remote dam-building camp and walks into the woods, never to return. Her action has far-reaching consequences for Sonja and her father, Bojan, as detailed in the ensuing chapters, which jump through the next 36 years and back into World War II. These jumps at first seem random but ultimately have a masterful effect.

Devastated by his adored wife's abandonment, for the next several years Bojan dumps Sonja with various other immigrant families, then takes her to live with him as he moves from job to job, always staying in decrepit "wog" housing disdained by native English-speakers.

Combining acuity with lyricism, Flanagan chronicles the insidious effects of war and the Australians' cynical exploitation of immigrant laborers. This exploitation results in Maria's mysterious disappearance, Bojan's becoming a violently abusive drunk and Sonja's deterioration into an emotionally frozen runaway. Throughout much of the book, which is set amid equally inhospitable city slums and craggy rainforest, the atmosphere is almost unbearably bleak and claustrophobic: No one even laughs for the first third of the story.

Sonja and Bojan seem doomed. But an unexpected event gradually changes things for the better, and Flanagan richly demonstrates how, as with a teapot that Sonja smashed when her mother left, the fragmented can become whole again.

Most of the characters in Kneale's English Passengers, aborigine and European, exhibit what Flanagan describes as "Tasmanian madness -- the bastard issue of a century and a half of despair cleaving to ever more outrageous fantasies." One of those fantasies, which seems fairly reasonable at the outset, is the get-rich-quick scheme concocted by the first of the novel's 20 narrators, British Capt. Illiam Quillian Kewley, who in 1857 attempts to smuggle brandy and tobacco from France aboard his double-hulled ship, the Sincerity (a quality hilariously lacking in the captain and his crew).

Kewley's luck runs out early on, and though his illegal cargo isn't found, he still has to pay an enormous fine. His only way is by chartering the Sincerity as a passenger vessel, which is when the most outrageous fantasy of all surfaces: a "holy quest" to find the Garden of Eden -- in Tasmania. The brainchild of another narrator, self-righteous English vicar Geoffrey Wilson, the expedition is bankrolled by a manic philanthropist who forces Wilson to accept as surgeon the dangerous-looking Dr. Potter, and as botanist the dissolute rake Renshaw.

With such an ill-assorted trio there's sure to be trouble in the ship's close quarters, particularly when Kewley initially has no intention of sailing to the agreed-upon destination and thus has no usable navigational charts for anywhere beyond the British Isles and France. And there's trouble aplenty throughout the Sincerity's halting and circuitous journey to Tasmania, with even more during an expedition to the island's interior and on its return to England.

Meanwhile, the despair that Flanagan mentions crops up in English Passengers, too, reflecting stories set in the early 19th century that show how well-intentioned Englishmen make Paradise hell for innocent and wicked alike. Here, led by convict Jack Harp and Peavay, the son Harp has unknowingly fathered by an aboriginal woman he kept chained up as a sex slave, a chorus of voices recounts the systemic extirpation of the natives and horrendous treatment of the imported felons in what was then known as Van Diemen's Land.

Keeping each voice distinct and authentic, from Peavay's pidgin English to Potter's poisonous, racist maundering, British author Kneale deftly weaves his disparate narratives into a tale by turns amusing, infuriating and suspenseful. Fans of historical fiction, and seafaring drama in particular, will savor this adventure.

© 2000 Bella Stander

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