An Imaginary Life

I loved this book at Uni and this review reminded me why.

The case for David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life

By Dallas J Baker

… further from the far, safe place where I began, the green lands of my father’s farm, further from the last inhabited outpost of the known world, further from speech even, into the sighing grasslands that are silence … (David Malouf, An Imaginary Life).

David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life is not set in Australia and has no Australian characters. It is set at the edge of the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. Australia as “Australia” would not exist for almost 2,000 years. This lack of identifiably Australian components is probably why An Imaginary Life is rarely mentioned as a great Australian book that deserves more attention.

An Imaginary Life is exceptionally well written, rich in poetry and evocative detail. It is a work reminiscent of the writings of a mountain hermit or nature mystic – but that’s not why I selected it as the one Australian book that deserves more attention. I selected it because its central themes resonate with ongoing debates about what it means to be Australian.

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life.
Random House

What kind of Australian literature is this?

At first glance, Malouf’s second novel does not look like an Australian story at all.

It doesn’t strongly feature the Australian landscape or sense of place, nor does it offer us characters of the type we have come to expect of typically Australian writing. There are no larrikins, no diggers, no Aussie battlers, and no tough yet world-wise women with hearts of gold.

To me, though, it reflects a significant aspect of the Australian story – a sense of exile.

An Imaginary Life tells the story of Ovid, the most famous and most irreverent poet of imperial Rome. Ovid’s irreverence leads to his banishment to an isolated village on the shores of the Black Sea in current day Romania, a place occupying the literal edge of the Roman Empire.

Exiled to the limit of the known world, Ovid is cut off from his own culture, even from his language. Slowly, the poet learns to depend on and respect those around him, those he once saw as unsophisticated barbarians because of their inability to speak Latin, their poverty, and their closeness to nature. Ovid sees nature as something somehow frightening, wild, unless it is cultivated, transformed and made productive by human hands.

An encounter with a wild boy

His worldview is challenged when he encounters an untamed boy who has lived out in the wilderness with wild creatures. Ovid captures and tries to “civilise” the boy – but this backfires on the poet in unexpected ways. By observing the wild boy, and then following him into the wilderness, Ovid realises Rome is not the whole world, and not even the centre of it.

Ovid’s predicament should be familiar to many Australians. Like the poet, many of us are acquainted with the feeling of being at the edge of things, on the wild borders of regions and empires to which we do not quite belong, or do not belong any more.

For the first century or so after colonisation, Australia was on the periphery of the British Empire. Then, from the second world war to the 1990s, we understood ourselves to be on the outer limits of the USA’s sphere of influence. Now we see ourselves as on the edge of the Asian region, but not really part of it. We seem to always be a part of something and yet apart from it.

When non-Indigenous Australians think about the history of their belonging to this place, they inevitably come to a moment of arrival; either recent or generations back, either as free migrants, refugees or exiled convicts. They also come to a moment of departure from somewhere else, the places where their ancestors, or they themselves, once belonged.

Indigenous Australians also know exile. European colonisation dispossessed them of their country. Over the decades that followed, many of them were forcibly moved to missions in places as foreign to them as the Old World. There is in Indigenous communities a deep yearning and mourning for lost places; places locked behind gates and fences, places buried beneath cities and suburbs, roads and farms.

Somewhere else

The somewhere else in our personal histories – those places we lost or left – plays a big part in how we think about ourselves. It produces a sense of national belonging that is never quite secure.

A common response to that insecurity is a kind of aloofness, a standing apart from the rest of the world. We like to single ourselves out, to brandish our physical and cultural distance from other places, our un-belonging as it were, as a mark of uniqueness, and of national identity that distinguishes us from others.

This is also Ovid’s initial response to his exile, to cling firmly to that which makes him different, to refuse to truly belong either to his community of exile or to Rome, which has cast him out.

Another common response to this insecurity, that sense of un-belonging, is to turn to nature, to the environment.

That may be why so much Australian writing has a strong sense of place, and why when we think of important Australian novels they are often ones that feature landscape as a character in its own right. Indigenous Australians have shown other Australians the way in this regard. It is their profound understanding and love of this place that has, over time, transformed the non-Indigenous view of it from something to be feared and tamed, to something to love and protect.

Unfortunately, the landscape is still a contested space: the site of ongoing Indigenous dispossession, the site of mass species extinctions and environmental degradation. When we turn for a sense of belonging to the land, to the country, we are inevitably reminded of our un-belonging, or of our dispossession.

Even so, nature, perhaps because it is undeniably a healing thing, continues to anchor us here, to ground us as “Australians”. For many, contested though it is, the beauty of the land eases that sense of exile, of not quite belonging, whether their families have been here for just a few years or a few thousand years.

For Ovid, it is the same. Slowly he comes to see the wild world as something to embrace, to cling to even, rather than something to fear. Ovid’s great epiphany is that the untamed world is not a hostile place, but a new home where he can be free of the rigid structures of Imperial Rome. By venturing into an even further place, a greater exile, he becomes free.

The poet in the world

An Imaginary Life is, in part, about an individual journey from a state of being cut off and apart from the environment – of wishing to tame and exploit nature, of being totally entangled in language and culture – to a state of being in intimate contact with the untrained, wild things of the world. It is also about a poet, in thrall of civilisation, realising that there are other ways to live and experience; ways that are beautiful and fulfilling.

Ovid comes to this realisation by following the example of the wild boy, someone for whom the environment is not something outside of himself but an expression of his own nature.

Those themes – of belonging and exile, of how to relate to the environment and to those who are different to us – are core to the debate about what it means to be Australian today. An Imaginary Life does not provide a workable template for how to navigate the complexity of belonging and un-belonging, nor should it. It’s a novel not a policy document.

It does, however, show us it is possible to imagine ways to do things differently, ways to live differently with each other and with nature. And once imagined, those other ways of living seem all the more possible.

Read more articles in The Case For series.

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The Conversation

Dallas J Baker does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Past The Shallows

Miles and Harry live with their father, an abalone fisherman, in a small settlement in Tasmania. Their lives are rudimentary and Miles lives for getting out on his surfboard. Harry has found a new friend, an old man scarred by fire who lives with his puppy Jake. Harry and Miles’ father is a tormented and brutal man who is also scarred, this time, by love. Their lives take a sharp turn as the swell of the sea is not listened to.
This novel is beautifully written. I read it in two hours flat because I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking and sadly beautiful too. It tells the tale of two sensitive boys in a bleak environment living lives that are controlled by the past and old wounds.
The characters are carefully sketched and the reader slowly inhabits their world.
Highly recommended.


The Slap

This was an interesting read. Sometimes literary prize winners are books that I don’t want to read, like The Gathering, which I couldn’t stand. It was with some trepidation then, that I picked this one up in the local library. In fact, I was so unsure that I decided to sit down and read a chapter before I took it home. This one however, was much more fascinating.
The action is set in suburban Melbourne in the northern suburbs, and deals with a family barbecue and the after effects of an incident which occurred there. At first the characters are portrayed as awful, if not downright repellant however we soon see the error of our initial judgements and the writing cleverly exposes our own first impressions and snap judgements, if not prejudices, as we read on.
Hector, a second generation Greek Australian, and his beautiful wife Aisha, a vet, host a barbecue for their friends and both initially have mixed feelings about the event. Aisha is of Indian Australian background and Hector’s mother does not accept her very well. The eponymous slap occurs when a spoilt three year old attempts to hit Harry’s son with a cricket bat and Harry intervenes violently. Harry, Hector’s cousin, is a violent and spoilt man and his family seem a little cowed by him at first. The links between the characters are strained as they grapple with their own moral ideas about what happened and are drawn by family and friendship loyalties.
We read the narrative from everyone else’s perspective and in doing so we see their prejudices, backgrounds and foibles. This allows us to develop empathy with each character and in doing so, explore the ways that we react to events and our own moral compass.
The novel isn’t at all didactic, it simply holds up a mirror to family life, race, drugs and drink, and relationships with friends and co-workers. It is a snapshot of part of modern Australia and honest and forthright. The multiple viewpoints allow us to see the complexity of living cheek by jowl with others in a multiracial/ multicultural society.
The language was very careful and the picture of the characters deftly wrought.
Now I know why it won the prize.

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Jasper Jones

The eponymous Jasper Jones is a part Aboriginal boy living in a West Australian town in the 1960s. He is used to prejudice. Our narrator is Charlie, a young, bookish, outcast from the same town. Jasper chooses Charlie when he really needs help and this is where the story begins.
Jasper needs Charlie’s help desperately but in order to help Charlie has to revise his notion of the world and replace it with something much more complex. His whole life is ineradicably altered by what he finds and this novel’s handling of the story is careful and interesting enough to make us want to go on the journey with him.
My favorite parts were definitely the hilarious dialogue between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu. Being Vietnamese is 1960s Australia brings its own challenges but Jeffrey is up to that. His wit is spot on and there are several laugh out loud moments. Jeffrey is a cricket tragic and is excellent at playing the game. But, of course, the locals certainly don’t want to give him the chance. How many Vietnamese cricketers have you ever heard of from 1960s Western Australia?
Charlie’s love interest is the fragile Eliza Wishart and there are complications aplenty in their relationship, not the least of which is their social difference. Eliza’s sister, Laura, goes missing and Charlie knows more than he can possibly ever tell.
The strength of this novel is not simply, as the publisher’s blurb would have us believe, the multiple references to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ but the similarities in theme are there. It is the complex relationships between characters that are far from stereotypical and the novel’s ability to lay bare the adult world that young Charlie is prematurely thrown into. It is a plausible depiction of small town life in rural Australia and has enough historical detail to maintain authenticity. The whodunnit factor will keep you guessing and the resolution was not too pat and obvious. I managed to read this in a couple of sittings which is a testimony to its storytelling abilities. Recommended.

There’s a video review of it here should you want to know more.

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The Ghost’s Child

I really love Sonya Hartnett’s writing so I was already anticipating something good with this one. I finally got around to reading it this week and it did not disappoint. It is a magical fable of an old woman who tells her story to a young boy who unexpectedly appears in her house. She tells the story of her love with a man whom she calls Feather and who is wild and untamed. Feather loves her but is unable to give himself to her fully as he is yearning for something else. Maddy’s story weaves itself through the narrative in a fairy tale like way and the reader is taken along on what could seem like a far-fetched journey if it was not told by Hartnett. Her prose is spare, but evocative and the reader begins to feel the pain that Maddy feels in her disappointment at not having the love she needs. She builds herself a life around that pain and in some ways it is the making of her. The ending is so bittersweet that I wanted it to continue for longer.
This is a highly recommended fable which adults and older children alike would love.

Man From Mukinupin

This musical was unexpected. The players came on stage in white stage make up and proceeded to sing and dance their way through the land near the Rabbit Proof Fence. Small town life was shown as a stage show. The singing was not brilliant and at times was even discordant. The references to Shakespeare were clumsy and il suited and the segments of the play did not seem to mesh together. There were attempts at humour which drew polite murmurs from the audience. The small town characters were typically quirky and stupid which of course hid a darker past. That of the touch of the tar brush. Polly, the main protagonist, is in love with the shop boy who goes off to war. The travelling salesman, who her parents want for her, is in love with her too. At one stage he sings a song to her about ‘having another acid drop’ this should probably tell you all you need to know.
Maybe it’s just an acquired taste, but I was certainly not the only one leaving at intermission.

More from the Underground

Well, this is proving to be an interesting phenomena. After reading the book, I thought I’d do some research and have a look at what other people were saying. There’s a great website run by the author here. This takes you to a page of reviews, the author’s comments, a discussion board and a political justiifcation for the book (as if that wasn’t obvious).
and then….. Mr Bolt decided to review the book for me. I was obviously very glad to have his view on the whole thing, given that he agrees so vociferously with the political sentiments of the author. Oh, hang on, he really hated it; quelle surprise! He’s right of course, what do left-wing, chardonnay swilling, intelligentsia know about books? They always read the wrong ones. Take Orwell for instance, we shouldn’t read him, he criticised his own society in a shameful way. tut tut.
Maybe we should all live in a world where we agree with our governments and don’t nitpick over silly little things like human rights, and lies, and the moral abyss created by a government that allows other countries to lock up our citizens, without charges, because we may disagree with the political sentiments of the accused (or not accused, as the case may be). Oh dear, silly me, am I using too much hyperbole? Must be reading too much of the Herald Sun’s darling of the right again.

Finished McGahan’s newie

Ok, so I did manage to finish this. Well, it had a few interesting twists, some plausible, some not so I’m afraid. the bad guys turn out to be our government after all, I won’t give you the details, but hey, it is distopian, you’d guessed that already right?
Our hero, does not save the day, which is refreshing, but he is saved. I won’t give away who saved him. Some of the plot events are a little far fetched, even for me, and I like fantasy novels. So it will be interesting to see what the lit crits make of this one.
All up it was worth reading, but maybe my expectations were too high; I loved White Earth and expected a similarly high level of prose and plot. I got the high level prose.