David Malouf, who turns 80 next week, is our great novelist of cohesion and reconciliation, writes Geordie Williamson
HEAD inland from Ingham on Queensland’s far north coast, into the Einasleigh Uplands, and eventually you will reach a place called the Valley of Lagoons — 3600ha of wetlands and tropical forest at the headwaters of the Burdekin River. The freakish geology of the region traps rainfall like tea in a saucer, creating networks of lakes and swamps, low hills and rises, a habitat-rich site for waterbirds seeking a dry season refuge, or a departure lounge for their Cape York migration.
If there is a sacred site in the writings of David Malouf, it is here among the melaleucas and coolibahs, the endless thickets of evergreen vine where plovers and bronzewings, topknot pigeons and scrub turkeys make a home. A hundred years after Ludwig Leichhardt passed through, stopping long enough to observe that its numerous indigenous inhabitants were “lotus eaters’’, Malouf arrived after a days-long train journey from Brisbane. It was 1955 and the author was just 21. “I went there for five days on a shooting trip and have never forgot it,” he later wrote: Its paradisiacal light at all times of day, the great flocks of birds that haunted its shores, filled its skies and were reflected in its waters, stayed with me for years afterwards. I could summon them up at will, and knew always knew that I would write something one day that would owe its existence to them and would try and give that existence back.
The closest fictional approximation of these events is contained in a long short story titled Valley of Lagoons. In 45 pages it transforms the bare facts of Malouf’s experience into something fantastic, even sublime. Its compression of narrative detail, its rhythmic surety, its exultant recall of place reflect a total command over the material at hand. It is one of those special instances when the consciously acquired discipline of decades is swept up in a wave of inspiration — the only portion left to the writer is the effortless abandonment of dictation: Just five hours south off a good dirt highway, it is where all the river systems in our quarter of the state have their rising: the big, rain-swollen streams that begin in a thousand threadlike runnels and fall in the rainforests of the Great Divide, then plunge and gather and flow wide-banked and muddy watered to the coast; the leisurely watercourses that make their way inland across plains stacked with anthills, and run northwest and north to the Channel Country, where they break up and lose themselves in the mudflats and mangrove swamps of the Gulf.
The story relates a hunting trip undertaken by the narrator, Angus, a boy on the cusp of manhood in the years after World War II. He’s the son of the local solicitor and a mother who insists her children, against local custom, wear shoes to school. He’s a bookish lad, too, so doubly an outsider. When he is 16 his father, a former soldier who has seen quite enough of killing, relents and allows him to accompany his
March 15-16, 2014 best friend Braden on one of the yearly hunts. But the narrator and his friend have drawn apart. Braden has matured more quickly, physically and mentally, and so Angus has found himself spending more time with Stuart, Braden’s older brother, an apparently simpler soul though one with a scapegrace reputation, who has taken up with Angus’s older sister, Kate. On the eve of the hunting trip the couple have broken up. Beneath the blokeish restrictions of the time, Stuart is obviously distraught. Angus, lacking the experience to appreciate fully the dynamics of their situation, is silently repelled by the torments suffered by the older boy.
It is against this background of thwarted desire and masculine testing that the hunting trip plays out. Angus is a superb vessel for Malouf’s ambiguity: intelligent, keenly aware, yet only fitfully conscious of the adult forces swirling about him. Though there is much he misconstrues, the boy is capable of swiftly revising his insights regarding people and place. It is as though the reader is coming into full consciousness alongside him.
This getting of worldly wisdom is, however, only half the story. Having seen Braden shoot his first pig, a vicarious initiation into manhood, Angus is allowed to join the next day’s shoot, where he shares a hide with Stuart. The older boy begs him to intercede with his sister on Stuart’s behalf. But his request interrupts a covey of birds. Angus misses his shot and then abandons Stuart, who had “violated the only code, as I saw it then, that offered us protection: tight lipped understatement, endurance’’ for the forest: I walked, and the great continent of sound I was moving into recorded my presence, the arrival, in its close-woven fabric of light, sound, stilled or moving shadow, of a medium-sized foreign body, displacing the air a moment as it advanced, and confusing, with the smell of its sweat and the shifting of its breath, the tiny signals that were being picked up and translated out there by a myriad of forms of alien intelligence. I was central to it but I was also nothing, or close to nothing.
This negation of personality is just as crucial to the progress of Valley of Lagoons as any coalescing of Angus’s mind into adult particularity. Angus walks on in a swoon of selflessness; he feels nothing of the passage into maturity that others have felt before him, raised to some new level by the hunting:
Nothing like that had come to me. I was no more settled, no less confused. I would bring nothing back that would be visible to others — to my father, for instance. I had lost something; that was more like it. But happily.
This is more of merger with nature than compliance with the culture that overlays it. And it stands in opposition to a certain fiction tradition, an approach to the rendering of reality that Australian writers inherited from accumulated centuries of English literature. It is to be hoped many will use the occasion of Malouf’s 80th birthday to reflect on what he has meant to them. For me, it is this peculiar, visionary access that is central to his achievement. Malouf’s work, in his own words, “heals the wound that separates words from things’’.
But what, exactly, does this mean? To appreciate the wounded nature of Australian literature, we need to look much further back. For 60,000 years before European arrival, indigenous people used stories to explain and celebrate human relationships to place. So closely did language tie story to environment that these operated as a narrative map. Aboriginal songlines formed an atlas of travel routes and sacred sites, hymned ancestors, offered mythological explanations for climate, geography, flora or fauna. Such tales linked past to present and people to landscape with a plenitude without comparison in world literature. Encoded in their epics was an entire world.
Then the process began again. Europeans came, armed with guns and germs and a language wholly unsuited to describing the strange realm in which they found themselves. One story of Australian literature in the era after 1788 is concerned with the struggle to rejoin the wider world. It is concerned with a centrifugal binding of nation and culture by using Western forms (novel, story, drama, memoir) with local colour added; the other, centripetal, more diffuse and strange, likelier to emerge from regional writers than the metropolis, is concerned with the gradual overcoming of alienation from place — with the making of a home.
This history consists of the often halting exercise of marrying language designed in an old world, to describe one utterly new.
Nicolas Rothwell, the most elegant and articulate promulgator of this alternative history of Ozlit, tells the story of Charles Darwin’s visit to Australia in the 1830s, where he was astonished by the difference on display. This land, wrote Darwin, was surely the creation of a different God. It is with the works of this alternative creator that Australian writers have grappled.
Those who traversed or circumnavigated Australia during the 19th century were often educated sons of the bourgeois. Though botanists, adventurers and surveyors by training or inclination, they were steeped in the romantic literature of the day. But they found it hard to reconcile romanticism’s celebration of European nature with what they found in their travels: raucous birds, strange mammals, a blinding im-
THIS LAND, WROTE DARWIN, WAS SURELY THE CREATION OF A DIFFERENT GOD
David Malouf among the melaleucas: his work subverts the literary traditions of the West for local purposes