Fly Away Peter, by David Malouf, details not only the horrors of war, but the beauty of innocence found in Australian wildlife. In essence, Malouf expresses the concept of binaries, in particular the contrast between innocence and experience, and what it means to be alive. The novel explores the life of Jim Saddler and his love for Australian wildlife, in particular birds, which Malouf then contrasts with his experience in the First World War, in which he subsequently dies. Malouf, through a variety of techniques, including recurring symbols, changes in place, imagery, and changes in time, is able to convey the central ideas of the binary of life, and how it is ultimately meaningless.
Malouf utilizes symbolism to explore how the peace and innocence found within nature greatly contrasts the horror of experience found in war, but that both are needed to be whole. Throughout the novel Jim discusses the movement of the birds he observes, such as the little wood sandpipers that appear each summer and come, […], from [overseas]. Through this symbolism, Malouf expresses his belief that in nature birds migrate innocently and peacefully, without any destructive motive. Malouf contrasts this idea with the symbol of the biplane, highlighting the ugliness with which mankind tries to replicate the beauty of nature. The bi-plane, a clumsy shape [that lifts] itself out of an invisible paddock and makes slow circuits in the air, is man’s attempt at replicating a bird’s flight, which has now become an instrument of war. Malouf points out that there is a parallel between the innocence of a bird’s migration, and man’s destructive motive for movement. It is through the symbolic binary of birds and planes that Malouf conveys his idea that life is comprised of both innocence and experience.
Malouf also utilizes the change in setting within the novel, detailing the natural beauty of Australia and the nightmarish hell of life in the trenches, to contrast the ideas of innocence and experience. When Ashley returns to Australia after visiting England, he observes the mixtures of powdery blues and greens [and] the sense [the landscape gave of] offering no prospect of [ever] being finished. It is through this imagery that Malouf reinforces the idea that the ultimate innocence can be found in nature, and it’s beauty is one of the greatest pleasures of life. Malouf contrasts this idea with imagery of the trenches, rotting planks, mud impregnated with gas, decaying corpses […] all ragged and black, changing the setting to the horrors of the war zone to emphasis the idea of how experience can completely change our perspective of the world we live in. It is through Malouf’s expert use of change in places that the idea of the two binaries of life, innocence and experience, are reinforced.
Malouf incorporates a change in time to address the concept of what it means to be alive, and the part time plays in this. Towards the end of the novel, Malouf fast forwards to address the feelings of Imogen, and it is here that the novel comes full circle. Imogen states that everything had changed. The past would not hold and could not be held, and it is through this statement that Malouf conveys the bleak idea that time moves forward, and that everything it leaves behind is meaningless. However, this is not the the only message that Malouf conveys. The idea that life is forever changing presents some comfort through the promise that new and beautiful things will always surface, such as the surfer Imogen observes, a youth walking – no running on the surface, to convey the cycle of life, which must not be wasted. Malouf also includes retrospect, this time reinforcing the idea that life is meaningless. As Jim recalls a kestrel trapped by a sardine can, he remembers how he wept […] at the cruelty of the thing, the mean and senseless cruelty. In this statement Malouf expresses the idea that this is how [life is], even in the sunlight, even in the beauty of nature there is cruelty enacted by humans, such as war, and this reinforces the idea of the meaninglessness of life. Indeed, it is through the use of the change in time that Malouf presents his idea of the binary of life, and through the contrasting concepts of innocence and experience, that life is essentially meaningless.
Malouf utilizes symbolism, such as the tilting of the earth and the surfer, to contrast the innocence and experience of life, and convey his idea that life simply is. In Brisbane, Jim observes that the attitude towards the war ( the ground before him, that had [before] stretched away into the clear future) suddenly tilted [towards] Europe. Through this symbolism, Malouf expresses his concerns regarding the war, and how it robbed the lives of many soldiers in a meaningless and violent way. This ‘landslide’ Malouf speaks of expresses the naivety with which soldiers went off to war, and the tragedy in their death. Malouf concludes with the symbol of the surfer, a mere dot on the sunlight water, [he] miraculously rise[s], and [repeats] the whole performance. This image gives hope to the reader, conveying that the cycle of life is beautiful, and both experience and innocence are needed to live a comprehensive life like Jim’s. Certainly, Malouf utilizes the symbolism and the way the text ends to highlight the binary of nature and the need for humans to have both innocence and experience.
David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter is so much more than a war novel. Through his use of techniques such as recurring symbolism, the change in setting, imagery, and the change in time, Malouf contrasts the beauty of Australian nature and the horrors of World War One in a profoundly eloquent manner. Malouf urges the reader to not live in a state of dangerous innocence, but accept the beauty and the ugliness of life as ultimately life is meaningless, but the time we that we do have is an incredible gift.