David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982)
Europe is a long way from Australia, and in the early twentieth century, cultural and political events there, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, do not touch the life of Jim, the taciturn young working-class Queenslander at the heart of David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter.
But something in Jim’s understanding connects his Southern Hemisphere to the Northern. He is a birdwatcher who along with a photographer, Miss Harcourt, is employed by the English-educated Ashley Crowther to record the birdlife on Ashley’s farm. And it’s the birds of passage that most amaze Jim. They come to the Queensland coast from Northern Asia, or from the snows of Norway – migrations so unlikely that not long-ago people believed that ‘when the season turned, some birds had simply changed their form as others changed their plumage – that swallows, for example, became toads’.1 The Englishwoman Miss Harcourt calls them refugees, a strange word Jim has never heard. He sees a dunlin for the first time and is thunderstruck; Miss Harcourt is amused that a sandpiper as common to her as a starling should seem exotic and precious: ‘She could have laughed outright at the newness of the old word’ – dunlin – ‘now that it had arrived on this side of the globe, at its difference in his mouth and hers.’
Jim, Miss Harcourt and Ashley are ordinary and conservative characters; Malouf is interested in the unremarkable. The bedraggled, sun-bonnet-wearing Miss Harcourt, ahead of her time with her black box and tripod, with her own rules and her refusal to care for other people’s, would, in the hands of many writers – Elizabeth Jolley, say – be an eccentric. Malouf resists it:
People found her, as a subject for gossip, unmanageable, unrewarding, and she oughtn’t to have been; they resented it. So [Jim’s] father and some others called her mad but could not furnish evidence. She refused to become a character. In the end they left her alone.
She refused to become a character. In the end they left her alone. Wonderful! – and the essence of Malouf. People don’t – can’t – declare themselves, yet so much is said. Jim doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe what he sees and feels; Malouf employs his to bring to life a sharp-eyed bloke with an immense capacity for feeling. Ashley’s property is a ‘sanctuary’ – and when Jim uses that ‘grand’ word to Miss Harcourt, he blushes:
He never uttered the word again. He didn’t have to. When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.
Class differences are smoothed out by the Australian landscape, by the trio’s indifference to other humans, by their shared love of nature, their shared reticence. Just look at this:
Ashley did not present a mystery to Jim, though he did not comprehend him. They were alike and different, that’s all, and never so close as when Ashley, watching, chattered away, whistled, chattered again, and then just sat, easily contained in their double silence.
We’re not mysteries to one another – yet we can’t comprehend one another. Gorgeous, terrifying paradox, comprehended by both narrator and Jim.
Fly Away Peter begins with a man-made thing of flight circling the air – a bi-plane. Below in the swamp are waterbirds; in the paddocks are lorikeets, rosellas and pigeons; high above are the birds of prey. The bi-plane casts a shadow over nature, and Jim is uneasy. Of course this shadow is a foreshadowing: there will be human passage to the faraway hemisphere. In the exquisite Chapter Five, the Great War arrives in Australia quietly, ‘the echo of a shot that had been fired months back and had taken all this time to come round the world and reach them.’ Visiting Brisbane, Jim, no coward, doesn’t sign up immediately because it simply doesn’t occur to him that he should. He meets ‘some sort of foreigner’ who is upset by the prospect of bloodshed. Jim thinks the man must have relatives in that impossibly distant place who will be involved. Back on Ashley’s farm, Miss Harcourt asks him what’s happening in Brisbane. ‘The war. Not much otherwise,’ he replies. Miss Harcourt looks concerned for a moment but says nothing.
A friend once said to me that the horse’s return to Devon from the killing fields of the Western Front in Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is false. He was right, but I answered that the lovely consolation it gives is why it’s a hit book, film and play.
Because Fly Away Peter’s Jim is so stolid, so certain of what he knows, what moves him, what he loves, where he fits, he seems – there’s only one word – reliable. As with the horse in War Horse, I always felt safe with him as a character, even – particularly – when the ‘murderous machine’ of war begins and he is in the muddy, bloody ditches of France, fighting for the British Empire.
I want to write about this section of the novel – but it should just be read or reread. Suffice to say that Malouf finds few consolations in war.
There is an opera adaptation of this superb book.
And it would make a stunning film.
Probably not a hit one.
Malouf is a true war poet.
The Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White admired Malouf’s non-stereotypical portrayal of Australian men and their relationships, and he thought that Malouf deserved the Nobel Prize.2 Like many readers of White, I have lots of arguments with him, but not on these matters.
Till the next novel …
David Malouf, Fly Away Peter (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982; repr. Ringwood: Penguin, 1983), p. 21. Subsequent quotations are from pp. 28, 34, 35, 42, 43, 46, 47, 102.
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 605.