David Malouf is, without question, an author considered a ‘classic Australian writer’. And, what a privilege it is to be able to count Malouf as one of Australia’s (arguably, the world’s) finest. Despite his high profile as an Australian writer, his work is often set as far from Australia as you can get. An Imaginary Life, my first encounter with Malouf, is a clear example, and Fly Away Peter is set only party in Australia, which begs the question: despite the fact he is an Australian writer, can his works be classed as Australian literature?
Fly Away Peter tells the story of Jim Saddler and Ashley Crowther and is set in 1914. The two become accidental friends after meeting on a large property on the coast. Jim is a birdwatcher, and feels a strong connection to the land and the wildlife. Jim and Ashley’s lives are easy and uncomplicated, until the outbreak of World War I. Both Jim and Ashley end up fighting in the war, although in different divisions. Jim enlists only because he feels he should. The story focusses predominately on Jim and his experience of war. Malouf weaves magic with words. His gentle, coaxing expression eases the reader into the story, drawing them in so gradually the reader is at the end of the novel before they realise they’ve been enticed. ‘Novella’ is probably a better term to describe Fly Away Peter than novel. It is heavy on character rather than plot, creating a vivid portrait of Jim’s changing nature throughout his time in the war.
There is a sense of displacement in much of Malouf’s work, and that is what enables his writing to be seen as inherently Australian, even when on the surface the story appears to have little, if nothing, to do with Australia. Displacement is felt by many Australians in their adopted home, in some cases a long way from their European roots.
Fly Away Peter is a story of wasted life. Not only the thousands of young men killed in the war, but the choices people make in deciding how to spend their lives. The irony of it all is that most men killed in the war felt they were choosing to do something worthy with their lives by fighting for their country. Malouf’s understated, poetic prose offers a strong juxtaposition to the harsh reality of war, and, despite the subject matter, it is a beautifully crafted novella.
Fly Away Peter
First published by Chatto & Windus, 1982, Vintage, 1999