Creating Other Worlds in Fly Away Peter
In the novel Fly Away Peter, David Malouf explores the individual’s ability to transcend the immediate, and create ‘other worlds’ of his or her own:
"Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into happiness: ...it creates,...
Far other worlds
uses the continuity of life to highlight the importance of the individual’s mind set against the meaning of human existence. Malouf’s three main characters, Jim Saddler, Ashley Crowther and Imogen Harcourt, are used to present Malouf’s themes in a unique and sensitive manner. Malouf also implies that fate is predetermined and beyond the control of the individual. The only escape route offered is through man’s imagination. "It is the human mind, the imagination which makes us special..."
Malouf suggests life has a continuity, that there is a ceaselessness surrounding time and as a result, individual life is to be savoured. Malouf uses symbolism to represent life’s perpetuity. A prominent example of this is the migrational patterns of the birds in the novel. Birds continue regardless of time: "The timespan for them was more or less infinite.". When Jim marvels at the sandpiper’s ability to find its way across the world and back: "...because the [memory] was ... there... in the long memory of its kind." The constant reference to bird migration becomes a clear symbol of the idea of continuity.
The concept of the continuity of life is also expressed by the association of humans and earth. The notion "...that the earth was man’s sphere...", occurs throughout the novel and represents re-growth and the idea that life goes on regardless of circumstance. Jim felt himself ‘dissolving’ into the earth when he was about to die. Closer to the moment of his death, Jim noted: "The earth smelled so good. It was a smell that belonged to the beginning of things..." This symbolism is a prominent feature of the novel, and again, clearly outlines Malouf’s views on the perpetual nature of time.
Another example of Malouf’s idea that time is ceaseless and therefore often life may have little meaning comes with the discovery of a mammoth fossil in France. When the bones of the ancient creature were dug up and displayed, Malouf writes: "Looking at them made time seem meaningless." This particular line also provides substance to Malouf’s conception that, on the whole, life is insignificant, that its importance lies in the individual’s ability to create his or her own world. As life may be brief, each moment must be savoured.
Malouf’s depiction of the continuity of life, the ceaseless nature of time and the importance of the individual mind, culminate in Jim’s death. In death, Jim’s mind transported him to a forest clearing, where he began to dig. He went there and joined up with his lost friend, Clancy Parkett, and there they dug the earth together, along with a long line of others. It was Clancy who sums up the notion of time, when he told Jim: "There’s all the time in the world, mate. No trouble about time..."
Each of Malouf’s three main characters provides examples of the importance of individual life, as opposed to the significance of the collective lives of a group. The novel’s main character, Jim Saddler, offers the most insight into this. Jim himself poses the question: "What does it mean, the likes of us?" The question is universal and remains, essentially, unanswered. However, Malouf’s suggestion is that life has no real meaning as a whole; the significance lies within the individual. Jim eventually comes to a realisation that: "Nothing counted." For all his life, Jim had been intent on naming things, recording. In particular, his compulsion to name birds shows Jim’s need for permanency: "It was giving the creature, through its name, a permanent place in the world,..."
Fly Away Peter
also encompasses the idea of constant change throughout time, that: "Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held." The notion of change emphasises the idea of Jim’s that "Nothing counted.". That there was no purpose in giving things permanency (as he does through names), if in the end, they would all disappear or be replaced with something else. This notion is symbolised by the bi-plane, a beacon of new order and a sign of time to come. The bi-plane changes as well: "...in the last months, [the plane] had entered a new dimension. ...new toys of a boyish but innocent adventuring, ...had changed their nature and become weapons."
Jim is a character who gives the reader insight into the notion that humans have the ability to transcend the immediate and focus (through imagination) on ‘another world’. This human ability becomes a necessity for survival for Jim during the war. Bobby Cleese helped Jim to be transported from a horrific war situation to another more pleasant, time, place and atmosphere. The two characters were stuck in a shell hole, "..so close to the enemy...that they could hear the striking of matches...They were in mud to their knees and crouching." Their only means of escape was through their own minds, and Bobby Cleese effected an escape by talking about Deception Bay, a fishing town with warm weather. "Jim could see it, almost feel the warmth in his own bones...and feel the fishscales drying and sticking to his feet. It was there, the Bay." This is an example of man using his imagination to transcend his immediate surroundings to wherever he would rather be.
Imogen Harcourt, like Jim, brought permanency to things. However, Miss Harcourt did this through photography. By Imogen’s photograph of the sandpiper, "..the bird’s passage through its own brief hurdle of heat and energy had been caught for a moment and fixed, maybe forever." Imogen’s photography and her personality, views and attitudes, reinforce the notion that life is brief and needs to be savoured. The savouring may be done through naming or through photographing or by some other means of giving life a form of permanency. It is suggested that this can also be done through the imagination, to help create magical worlds individually.
In the final chapter, Imogen grieved for Jim, and through this she was able to bring Jim’s life, and life in general, into perspective: "That is what life meant, a unique presence... A life wasn’t for anything. It simply was." Imogen sat on the beach to contemplate this, and "...watched the waves...". The waves then serve as a metaphor of life, "...as they rose, gathered themselves, stood poised a moment holding the sun at their crests, then toppled. There was a rhythm to it." This is the suggestion that individual life is brief compared to the endless nature of time, and the ‘moment’ that life is ‘poised’ is to be savoured and valued.
This notion of life having momentary beauty and significance in the scheme of things is further emphasised by the surfer in chapter eighteen. The surfer in the final chapter is watched by a fascinated Imogen. He represents the paradox of life:
"...the balance, the still dancing on the surface, the brief etching of his body against the sky at the very moment, on the waves lip, when he would slide into its hollows and fall."
As expressed by reviewers in "Directions Masters": "These moments of beauty cannot be held, but did exist."
Ashley Crowther and Jim Saddler are contrasting characters. "Ashley Crowther and Jim Saddler might be ... no more than Master and Man." However, they are drawn together by their interest in birds. The contrast of the two social classes (upper and lower), as presented through Ashley and Jim, simply highlights the ability of all people to consciously shape their own environment. Malouf shows that life’s importance and beauty is created in man’s mind. Ashley, in another contrast to Jim, "...was a very serious person." However, he was also "dreamy", and this is the indication that Ashley too has the ability to transcend the immediate.
The figure of Ashley also helps establish Malouf’s notion that an individual’s fate is predetermined and beyond the control of the individual. Ashley himself said: "It’s my fate." It appears it was Ashley’s fate to turn his inherited land into something worthwhile, something named - a ‘sanctuary’, giving the beauty of his land permanency. This was a fate Ashley was happy with: "The phrase pleased him."
However, it was a fate which for Ashley was predetermined. He inherited the land he would transform into a sanctuary, and unlike Jim, he returned from war to continue his destiny. The notion that individuals cannot control their destiny is also developed through other characters. In Brisbane Jim felt the ground tilting downwards under him, "...on a dangerous slope," sending him sliding. This, however, does not stop Jim from going to war, indicating that nothing would deter him. "Life [Malouf] often implies, gives the illusion of choice and control, but...one’s fate seems to have been there all along."
The idea that destiny is beyond the control of the individual is shown by the contrast between Jim and Clancy during the war. Clancy bent the rules and "...was always in trouble,", while Jim played by the book and wanted "...to put every step down firmly and in the right place." Both Jim and Clancy were killed, highlighting the suggestion that fate is predetermined. Another example of this is the young officer who was hit leading his men onto the battle ground. He died with the look, "I wasn’t ready. Unfair!" Malouf shows that fate is predetermined. The only way the individual can escape it is by creating his own ‘imagined’ world.
Fly Away Peter is unique in its presentation of universal and prominent themes. The significance of the individual, as opposed to the meaning of life, man’s ability to transcend the immediate, the continuity of life and predetermined fate are all examined in a sensitive and perceptive manner. Malouf crafts his three main characters to portray and develop the essence of his main themes. The most prominent of these themes is summarised by Malouf when he said: "We can and must transcend the conditions we find ourselves in, however terrible they may be."