David Malouf: Fly Away Peter (1982)

There really are numerous ways to write about war. While some elements will always remain the same – especially when one of the novel’s themes are the trenches of WWII – accomplished authors, will still find a way to write something completely new. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter is an excellent example for this.

Being an Australian writer Malouf writes about the war from the Australian perspective which works on two very different levels. One focuses on the land and nature, the other on the people. I have a feeling I would have overread a lot if I hadn’t seen so many Australian WWI movies and read Charlotte Wood’s stunningly beautiful The Submerge Catherdral (here).

It seems to be a trademark of a lot of Australian writing to emphasize the beauty and uniqueness of the flora and the fauna of the continent. Much of it must seem like paradise to the inhabitants and so it’s not surprising Malouf starts the book with the description of nature. Jim Saddler, a young Australian who has never been outside of the country, knows more than anyone about birds. He lies hidden in the marshes and watches them for hours. Ashley Crowther, another young man, but from a very different background, has returned from England where he went to university and come back to take care of his vast family estate. The marshes are part of it. When the two men meet, something almost miraculous happens. Without knowing Jim, Ashley senses the knowledge and the passion he has for birds and offers him a job. This is a dream come true for Jim, a man from a very modest background. The plan is to turn the marshes into a bird sanctuary and Jim will work there, observing, making lists.

While observing one of the rare birds, Jim meets Imogen, an English woman who arrived in Australia not long ago, and has decided to stay here. She is a photographer and earns a living with nature photography.

When the war breaks out none of the three characters thinks at frist it has a lot to do with Australia but in the end, the two men sign up. Of course Ashley will be an officer, while Jim becomes just a simple soldier.

Once in France, the tone and style of the book changes considerably. During the first half of the book, Malouf’s writing was poetic and the structure of the sentences unconventional but when he starts to describe the horror of the war, the writing, moves into the background and is more conventional.

Most of what is described from Jim’s point of view, we know from other WWI novels; the rats, the mud, the corpses, the gas. That is not new but what is new is how the earth is evoked which leads to comparisons. The rich earth of the Australian marshes produced so much beauty, here the earth swallows up everything, they all sink into it in the end.

One of my favourite war movies, Beneath Hill 60,  describes the contribution of Australian miners to WWI. Something the film directors chose to leave out, is mentioned in the book. While digging the tunnel systems beneath Hill 60 and arriving at the enemy lines, the miners discovered the skeleton of a  mammoth.

Jim is a witness of this discovery. It’s a key scene in the novel as it is an example of continuity.

It was a great wonder, and Jim stared along with the rest. A mammoth, thousands of years old. Thousands of years dead. It went back to the beginning, and was here, this giant beast that had fallen to his knees so long ago, among the recent dead, with the sharp little flints laid out beside it which were also a beginning. Looking at them made time seem meaningless. (….)

Continuity is a major theme of the book, continuity and opposites. The land and nature exist and will always exist. They are endless while humanity is not and the individual man even less so. Man creates opposites, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the cowardly and the heroic, they all take place inside of the continuity.

The mammoth is a symbol for this and so are Imogen’s photos. At the end of the novel she thinks about how she met Jim. She captured a bird on a  photo while he captured it in his mind. The bird is long gone and so is the picture in Jim’s mind because Jim is gone, but it’s still here, as she remembers both and there is still the photo as well.

It’s hard to do justice to a book like Fly Away Peter in a short post. I hope I was able to convey the beauty and make you curious to find out for yourself. I couldn’t help but had to compare it to two other shorter WWI novels we read last year, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting (here is the review) and How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston (here is the review). While the latter will always be my favourite, Fly Away Peter is excellent as well and adds another dimension. It contains a rich a meditation and philosophical exploration of WWI from an Australian perspective which is well worth reading.

Have you read David Malouf? Which is your favourite of his books?

The review is a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge as well as to War Through the Generations.

If you’d like to read another review, Danielle hast posted about it here.