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Pleasure and Pain in David Malouf's Fly Away Peter

David Malouf’s, Fly Away Peter (1982) reveals the dualities of life refracted through the experiences of Jim Saddler — an archetypal Anzac. Clare Rhoden’s article (2014), claims that Fly Away Peter explores a “contrast between the natural world and the crude activities of man”(p.2) to proffer a “wider vision of life”(p.3). Rhoden’s interpretation is supported by Malouf’s poetic restraint, through which he collides the tranquillity of rural Queensland with the terror of the trenches — presenting a world of dualism.

Rhoden praises the “exquisite natural beauty”(p.3) evocated in the opening chapters of Fly Away Peter. Malouf’s depiction of the airy Queensland bird sanctuary is symbolic of the innocence which characterised Australia at the turn of the 20th century. Bathed in metaphorical sunshine, this oasis of serenity is a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden. Malouf uses imagery to construct a perfect paradise where “intensely blue mountains”(p.1) and “tobacco brown shallows”(p.1) harbour flocks of waterbirds. Sheltered within this Australian Eden, Jim has a deep connection with the land, vesting him with an intimate knowledge of “every blade of grass and drop of water in the swamp”(p.7). The naming of the birds and land establishes Jim’s relationship with the natural world, injecting it “with some romantic quality”(p.15). Moreover, when Jim encounters Bert’s biplane, he resents its imposition as it defiles the hallowed habitat of the birds he so admires. The mechanized world of man intruding into nature subtly foreshadows the dark killing machines that later lay waste to the fields of Europe. Malouf paints the sublime beauty of the natural world, unafflicted by the crude hand of man.

Rhoden suggests that Malouf captures the savage side of man through war, which acts as an “antithesis of the natural world”(p.3). The blasted European battlefield is plagued with “familiars of death’’(p.84), where the stinking mud glitters darkly “under the dangerous moon’’(p.61). In the lead up to war, Jim’s life drifts out of control as he feels the world “tilting him”(p.56) towards the “mouth of hell”(p.100). Such bleak imagery clashes with the representation of the idyllic sanctuary while framing the consequences of man’s crude activities. Jim’s experience with war leads him to believe that “earth [is] one vast rag and bone shop’’(p.109) — reflective of his nihilism and despair induced by the savagery of man. Jim’s negativity serves as an antithesis to his former intimacy with the natural world as he witnesses the land on which he stands dying from the fighting occurring atop it. Extending on man’s barbarity, Malouf graphically details Clancy’s horrific death and the obliteration of Eric’s leg. Rhoden further argues that war produces only victims, where “aggressors and defenders suffer equally”(p.3) thus, capturing the futility of such savagery. Malouf invites the reader to view man’s ruthlessness by starkly juxtaposing the dismal state of war with the gentle memory of home.

Rhoden posits that the use of binaries accentuates the dualities of life, “recognis[ing] both [its] uplifting dazzle and pain”(p.3). Malouf succeeds in presenting the reader with a more intricate view of life, where good and evil co-exist, each opposite drawing meaning from the other. Although Malouf uses the natural world as a symbol of purity, this representation is nuanced — Jim’s pre-war life is not as entirely innocent as it seems. In truth, Jim is acquainted with life’s malice; all too familiar with death and loss in the human experience. While Malouf paints an idyllic sanctuary, it is in this very place of innocence that Jim witnesses the mechanised mauling of his brother and suffers from the destructive despair of his father. Rhoden identifies the “nexus of the disastrous and the ordinary”(p.8) — notions that allow Malouf to explore “both conflict and peace as he charts the human experience”(p.8). Rhoden notes that by capturing both the “extreme and quotidian side of war”(p.8), Malouf uncovers the bewildering duality of life. The sight of an old man gardening amidst a war-scarred landscape renews Jim’s optimism, granting him with a newfound perspective that “so many worlds… exist simultaneously”(p.115). At the end of the novella, Imogen grieves Jim’s death and reflects on the meaningless but beautiful continuity of life. Imogen shifts her lens towards a new future, as her grief for Jim is transfigured through the epiphanic vision of a surfer — a symbol of renewal. Imogen’s judgement that “life isn’t for anything… it simply is”(p.140) serves as a “trope of acceptance”(p.3) and enables her transcendence. Malouf’s exploration of a wider vision of life is founded on the concept of “death [and] how closely it resides with life.” In doing so, Malouf “reminds [us] about of the sanctity of the everyday”(p.8).

Holistically, Rhoden’s commentary is well-founded. The description of the natural landscape starkly contrasts the repulsive portrait of war painted by the crude hand of man. Malouf’s use of binaries accentuates the perennial dualities of life, where this wider vision is woven from the dual strands of pleasure and pain. Fly Away Peter charts the intrinsic paradox of the human condition, as it discovers the beautiful but perplexing perpetuity of life.

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