David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter

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by atibens

What is the meaning of life?

David Malouf’s, Fly Away Peter, an award winning ‘book of the year’, is a modern adult novel which explores the transient nature of life via the character of Jim. Jim finds himself transported from his known planet, his sanctuary, into an alien, inhospitable globe of war. In making a modern author-centred reading, I was intrigued by the manner in which Malouf utilised motifs to communicate his presence in the text to me, the reader. 

Fly Away Peter, raises the query that I, like numerous other readers, find overwhelming that is, what is the meaning of life? Malouf uses the central character of Jim and his experiences to examine this question along with the notion of the value of human life.

I discovered myself engulfed by Malouf’s use of setting as a means of exploring Jim’s painful journey from the known world, the sanctuary and the swamp, to the unknown, alien globe of the trenches and war. The descriptive nature of these discourses, along with the discourse of ‘mapping the world’ through encounter are traits of the genre of writing that Malouf employs. Inside these discourses the use of motifs this kind of as ‘exile’ and ‘birds’, permitted me, as the reader, to sense the implied author inside the text.

The exile motif that Malouf employs in many of his works like, An Imaginary Globe, 12 Edmonstone Street and Johnno,  empowered me as a reader to understand the challenge of new places and new people and the troubles encountered in ‘making sense’ of a new setting. As I read Fly Away Peter, my expectations had been that it would be a war story and one particular that I would discover exciting and simple to read. This in part was genuine, for it was a story about war but so considerably much more. Despite the fact that difficult to study I discovered it liberating for me as a reader. I was unfamiliar with the motif ‘exile’ however, Malouf’s intentions became clear as Jim progressed from the swamp to trenches, “The planet Jim identified himself in was not like anything he had ever acknowledged or imagined.” (Malouf, 1982: 58)

Yet another powerful motif widespread to Fly Away Peter is a portion of the wider motif of naming the planet, which is frequent to numerous of Malouf’s works. To Jim, the birds which are a “source of wonder [and] one thing to be revered for their uniqueness and the patterns of their existence” (Good, 2000: 48) foregrounded his planet view. This view was presented metaphorically linking Jim’s view of the world as getting flat and one dimensional to the bird’s “extraordinary capacity to cover huge distances” (Great, 2000: 48) . It is Jim’s unwavering belief in the significance of his function as the keeper of the ‘book’, delivering the creatures with a “permanent place in the world” (Malouf, 1982: 44), that permitted me to see traces of Malouf’s view of the world within the text.

It is by means of Jim’s altering relationship with the planet of the sanctuary and the trenches that one more frequent motif in Malouf’s performs emerges. Fly Away Peter, like Johnno addresses the motif of continuity and renewal and their location in understanding the planet. While the safety of the sanctuary limited Jim’s understanding of the world, it was the migration of the birds that supplied him with a continuity between his two worlds – the sanctuary and the trenches. I located Jim’s naivety in a complex globe confronting, especially his blindness to the innate potential of violence in man. His reaction of surprise to the ugly confrontation involving the Aborigines in Brisbane together with his rationalisation of the violence perpetrated by his father restricted his understanding of the globe as, “he didn’t want to be infected” (Malouf, 1982: 6). Jim’s simplistic view of the planet which privileges a lack of understanding of the part of human suffering in the achievements of man allowed me to glimpse traces of Malouf and his views on violence and human suffering.

An Imaginary Globe, 12 Edmonstone Street and Johnno like Fly Away Peter deal with “encounters in between individuals and objects that overwhelm them” (Mansfield, 1989: 231). In accepting this statement I was able to determine with Jim’s concern of war and death, which he described as “eerie”, “nightmarish” (Malouf, 1982: 90). It is via Jim’s death that I believe we come closest to sensing the author in this text. By way of the motifs Malouf employs throughout the text we journey with Jim to an understanding of the planet that is broader and one that accepts that life has a organic cycle. At the second of death Jim understands the bigger image and the uniqueness of his life in this.

Within Malouf’s texts and in particular Fly Away Peter, the prominent ideology of recognizing the greater image from the quick is foregrounded. Jim’s encounter and belief in the importance of mapping the world and his experiences of it, “he saw it all, and himself a distant, slow-moving figure within it: the long view of all their lives, which includes his own…” (Malouf, 1982: 117) echo this ideology. It was here I was able to clearly understand Malouf’s construction of Jim’s globe each in the sanctuary and at war and how this was a related concept employed in Malouf’s other texts.

While Malouf in many interviews states that his works may possibly represent facets of his life, I know not to presume that the author is ‘Jim’ in the text. By confronting the “concepts, ideologies and themes” (QSA, 2004: 11) widespread to all Malouf’s texts, I was challenged to examine the problem of the transient nature of life through the rawness of Jim’s experience of war in the trenches.

Written by hosp

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