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Yu Ting


									                A reflection on David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter

    Fly Away Peter is a short chronicle of important events in the lives of Jim Saddler,
a plain Australian who has a passion for bird watching. Themes of the novel are
unveiled through the growth of the central character. Jim Saddler, the protagonist, is
an innocent and self-contained young man living on the coast of Queensland, with a
profound understanding of the bird life. Actually, everybody in the town is happy and
at peace with themselves and nature. People enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Their
days are filled with peaceful walks in the bush, bird watching and fishing. Jim and his
friends especially enjoy the serenity of the sanctuary and the wonders of nature that it
holds until such idyllic life is disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in
    The grim reality of war and the ensuing suffering is a striking theme in this story.
Malouf portrays the horror and absurdity of the First World War through the
disturbing descriptions of the dirty trenches and Jim’s miserable experiences. War in
the trenches of Europe is hellish. Everyday there are soldiers die in action, of wounds
and diseases. On Jim’s arrival at the front, he is coated by the blood of his friend
Clancy, who is blown out of existence by an unexpected shell lands. Subsequently
young Eric dies slowly of the infection after losing both legs. The ‘innocence’ of the
young man seems to be eclipsed by the horrific reality of the Great War. Jim comes to
recognize, ‘he had been living till he comes here, in a state of dangerous innocence’.

     Nothing counted. The disintegrating power of that cruelty in metallic form, when it hurled

     itself against you, raised you aloft, thumped you down like a sack of grain, scattered you as

     bloody rain, or opened you up to its own infinite blackness--nothing stood before that. It was

     annihilating. It was all. (黄源深 , 1996:609)

     The description of the gruesome realities of the living and dying at the front are
gut-wrenching. ‘The immense and murderous machine that was in operation up ahead
would require more and more men to work it, more and more blood to keep it
running’ (黄源深 , 1996:607). On the battlefield, peaceable farmers, cattlemen, clerks,
plumbers all become soldiers. They are reduced to a ‘general man from whom all
private and personal qualities had been removed’. Signs of cruelty can likewise be
seen in the kestrel Jim found ‘once with a tin tied to its leg, a rolled-up sardine-tin still
with its key’ (黄源深 , 1996:608), the witness of his younger brother’s death under the
harvester he is driving and the old man digging in the blasted wood. Jim’s military
service essentially evokes his inner consciousness. ‘It was of a kind that could blast
the world’. From the beginning of the novel, Jim is frightened by his father’s violent
nature and shows his abhorrence of violence. He realizes during the war that the
ongoing violence will never cease. Through his voyage of realization, we are
confronted with a philosophical approach to the meaning of life and death----the
inevitability of death and the unstoppable movement of the time.
     The novel is written in a third person narrative voice, which gives the reader a
realistic insight of war through the horrors of European trenches. The author depicts
the war scenes in the eyes of two young men, Jim Sadler and Ashley Crowther, who
migrate to the front line when the war breaks out and inevitably become the cogs in
the machinery of war. Besides, a number of contrasts and symbolisms are used in this
story to express author’s opinions towards the war, such as the tranquil life of the
swamp in Queensland and the horror of trench warfare, life and death, innocence and
experience. In addition, the migration of the bird in the novel is symbolic, echoing
Jim’s journey to the battlefield. As the soldiers from all over the world travels to the
front to fight for their countries, the birds are similarly migrating for the change of
seasons. The understated implication of this contrast is that the birds will all be
returning while the most soldiers will never return their home. The author again
exposes the destructive effect of war to humans.
In spite of the cruelty of the war, the novel still implies the human’s wish to build
from experience a new picture of the world and bring something new in our
awareness of life, like the birds existing unaffected by the war. The birds can still
regenerate and live the way nature intended them to despites the chaos, death and
horrors. This theme is reflected in the pervasive image of the migratory birds. ‘Even
here, in the thick of the fighting, there were birds’. And it’s all the same to Jim. In the
awful war-stricken place, the bird is the only thing he can still find comfort in, and
which reminds him of his peaceful life on the Queensland. After seeing the local
farmers trying to make their livelihood amid the chaos, Jim begins again to make a
record of the birds. At the end of the novel when Miss Harcourt hears about the news
of Jim’s death she is led to contemplate the fact that the past cannot be held or
brought back. Life moves on and there are always new things to contemplate. There is
a sense of the rebirth of Jim spiritually in Miss Harcourt’s mind. Jim’s journey of self
discovery provides a vehicle for the author to deliver his messages portraying the
transient nature of human beings existence and insignificance of individual life.

1. Davie, M, 1982: Fly away Peter, Geoge Braziller, New York
2. 黄源深. 澳大利亚文学选读,上海外语教育出版社, 1996
3. Peter, O, 2009: Rereading David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter: the great war, aboriginal
   dispossession, and the politics of remembering, Australian Literary Studies


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