"Evil and love are very real forces. Yet nobody likes talking about evil, and no-one wants to believe love has a redemptive power. Our age lives in shadows. Until we can confront the one, and acknowledge it, we can never aspire to the other." Richard Flanagan, 36 and defiantly Tasmanian, is talking about his new novel, One Hand Clapping, an exposition of the postwar migrant experience in his home State. It's also his new movie, of which more later. By fanciful extrapolation, he could well be alluding to his own literary experience: few have had to confront more shadows. Three years ago, he stepped out from them, in a literary sense, with publication of his novel, Death of a River Guide. That book itself confronted shadows, peering into an island culture of "great silence".
Initially ignored by reviewers, it was a sleeper which hit the heights through reader power alone. Word of mouth is a powerful tool - after its underwhelming reception, River Guide underwent an accelerated renaissance, pulling prizes (Adelaide's National Fiction Literary Award, the Victorian Premier's First Fiction Award) and making best-of-year lists. Flanagan was hailed as a local-most-likely.
Yet even in success came other shadows: he was Demidenko-ed thrice, in the Miles Franklin and the Vogel-The Australian awards (for which he was a shortlistee) and when he spoke out against "aberrant racism" in Helen Darville's then-lauded fiction.
And finally, ironically, another shadow: few Australian books of recent years have been as anticipated as his just-released second novel - unusually, an expectation of readers (and fellow writers) rather than a marketing-driven exercise. The one most doubtful of delivery? The man himself.
"The books become a way of understanding your own world, a journey into the subterranean recesses of your soul," he explains. "When you finish them, you're not sure where you are - you lose all bearings because they've been your compass. I always feel as if I have ritually disemboweled myself - it may be good but equally it may be terrible. And there's nothing more you can do: it is what it inescapably is."
Inescapably, what it is is a fine book. Sensitive and sensible, it has a raw reality that challenges as it exposes. There's the shock of recognition in the emotional depth-charges terrorising apparently ordinary lives. Equally, there is resolution, if (as in life) imperfectly edged. This is the migrant experience with insight, squared, plus an unsentimental clarity.
Practical, personable, determinedly more flannel shirt and jeans than club tie and pin-striped suit, Flanagan's no-nonsense downhome style obscures a finely-honed cultural sophistication. Equate his relaxed drawl with relaxed acuity at your own risk. He doesn't push opinions, but if asked, pulls few verbal punches. And while it's not shooting from the PC lip (he's a self-described "watermelon green - green on the outside, pink in the middle"), he always walks with an analytical enviro-humanist left foot forward.
Put that down to bloodlines - "Irish Catholic convict ... I was born in Longford where my great-great grandfather settled in 1849. My family was rooted in that Northern Tasmanian peasantry, with its own rich folk culture. And it was a pretty political - uncle Bert was a strong communist, secretary of the Victorian Federated Ironworkers at their heyday. I grew up with this sense that politics should be inclusive, not just for parliament. Anything that empowers ordinary people, that makes them feel that they can have some control over their lives, makes the world a much better place. But I don't seek "causes" out, I just get caught up in things."
Yet the honing of his activism - he has lobbied on issues ranging from conservation to child care to gay rights and the "whitewashing of Australian history" - he puts down to the Greens. "I grew up in the shadow of Lake Pedder and the Franklin River campaigns. There was a great silence in Tasmania for a century following the collapse of the convict system, a form of moral cowardice after that experience of the most brutal forms of control.
"The Greens were the first to speak publicly against it. They created an inclusive notion of what it was to be Tasmanian ... their achievements in liberating the island intellectually and emotionally should never be underestimated. The environment issue was a prism through which the light of a century of despair and hope was refracted into this glorious rainbow - something fundamental changed. It was as though as a writer and historian, you could suddenly start investigating the confusions of the past."
Flanagan's investigations were an "overnight success" born of a solid apprenticeship: he had published books on history (unemployment in Britain) and the environment (a critique of the Greens in south-west Tasmania) and had ghostwritten John Friederich's (the former head of the collapsed National Safety Council) biography before River Guide. No mean feat for someone who left school at 16 wanting to be a carpenter.
It was the late 70s, a time of few apprenticeships, and he worked instead as a surveyors' chainman in the bush for a year before the company went bust. "I decided, as you could then, to go to university and from there ended up with a Rhodes scholarship, went to Oxford for a couple of years and returned wanting to write. I didn't know how and I didn't know anyone who had done it so I worked in various menial jobs, as a laborer, as a river guide, by day and wrote at night. It's not a particularly remarkable life," he laughs, "just ordinary with a few scattered highlights."
Ordinary? Tasmania's Rhodes scholars are a select band (think former federal minister Neal Blewett, former Bishop of Bendigo Oliver Heywood, former State opposition leader Sir Max Bingham, author and Oxbridge scholar Peter Conrad, UN administrator John Gee and Ashton Calvert, who is about to be appointed Head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and to go from chainman to Rhodes scholarship to road scholarship to literary scholar is, well, unusual? "These things happen by misadventure ... I studied history in an era when the authorities believed that all the university traditions were important; but they were good to me in that they allowed me to write in the way I wanted to.
"In my family, reading and writing were everything. My grandfather was illiterate, and I got from my father a passion for words ... that slightly otherwordly magic to them. (His brother Martin, a Melbourne journalist and author, was similarly inspired.) Material success was never important: what you were in yourself was, and somehow that was mixed up with writing."
He fell in love, he says, with a family story-telling tradition. For a long time, he sought a style to reflect the baroque richness of that language. "The established work didn't help me understand my world or how to write about it. When people tell stories here, they digress endlessly but always return where they began, with no real ending. Yet the tales stay with you, and grow in richness. They don't impose explanations or analysis, and that's part of their joy."
Most of all, he wanted to capture the flavour of Tasmania: "the only art we had was on the weekend in the tragi-comic theatre of football in which the great despair and the great love and the great hope of everyone was played out. But if you wanted to write or perform the other arts, you had to go into exile. We produced a disproportionately high number of artists but they all had to leave. I resented that ... for me to do anything significant, I felt I had to stay."
It was a good non-move. Through his localisation, Flanagan writes universal themes. Yeats, the historian in him notes, pointed out that no great artist has been cosmopolitan. "And the history of literature is of writing from the edges: unless you understand your own part of the world, you can't offer anything to anyone. Tasmania is all I know, all I've got, and it's the paddock I plough, for better or worse."
His new book arrived via a circuitous route: he grew up among migrants, "I even married one" (he lives with his Slovenian-born wife Majda and three daughters in Hobart), and he empathised with the migrant experience. He'd also found files in the Tasmanian archives years ago that were interviews "done by a hydro electricity commission bloke just after the war; he was recruiting migrant workers and they would have these incredible stories on their forms - they might have started in the Ukraine and had seven years' forestry experience, which was really forced labour in the Russian gulags, and then been sent to, say, China.
"Then it would have their ages - 21, 19, 23 ... these people had lived through the greatest catastrophes of our age - fascism, bolshevism, depression, total war - and were then thrown into an extraordinary wilderness at the other end of the earth. Where their mission was to recreate Europe. After all that trauma - Europe was the midnight knock on the door, the place where they lost family and nation ... to be given the job of building dams in the hope that Tasmania would become the Ruhr Valley of Australia seemed spectacularly ironic, strangely funny and enormously sad."
The book started life as an exercise in scriptwriting, but because he didn't know how to write scripts, he wrote the story as prose and then translated. The script went off via its own circuitous, and tortured, route (but that's another story) to become a $3 million movie shot this year in Tasmania. Directed by Richard Flanagan. Says producer Rolf de Heer: "He is an exceptionally fast learner with a clear vision of what he's after." It will be released early in '98.
Which brings us back to evil and love. "In the end, you have to think about those, and create an engagement. One of today's great myths is that redemption lies within yourself - gymnasiums to make the body perfect, self-help courses to rejuvenate the inside - but it is essentially a lie because what little salvation there may be must lie with other people. You must search for it in others. That's what love is, seeking to understand other people.
"Great friendship cannot survive without forgiveness. One Hand Clapping is not meant to be a despairing book, but for it to be truly about hope and love, it has to encompass the opposite."
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan is published by Macmillan. This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1997
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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