OPEN COUN­TRY

David Malouf, who turns 80 next week, is our great nov­el­ist of co­he­sion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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