There are many boundaries in Fly Away Peter, such as the perimeter of Ashley Crowther’s property, the borders between countries at war, and the edges of Miss Imogen Harcourt’s photographs. However, Malouf showcases these boundaries only so that he can demonstrate their relative meaninglessness. What matters most, he suggests, isn’t the actual presence of such borders, but the ways in which people perceive them. This often means disregarding arbitrary delineations altogether, as protagonist Jim Saddler does when he goes to World War I and stops keeping track of the country borders he crosses. This kind of approach puts an emphasis on actual human experience, prioritizing how a person views his or her surroundings without paying much attention to the ways in which these surroundings have been divvied up by others. At the same time, though, Jim doesn’t fully ignore life’s various boundaries and separations, but lets them inform his general perspective on life. Ultimately, Malouf suggests that, although official demarcations are often arbitrary, their presence can sometimes highlight—rather than obfuscate—that which lies beyond their bounds.
In order to illustrate how odd it is to divide the world into imaginary sections, Malouf scrutinizes the notion of property ownership. Although Ashley Crowther is a wealthy young man who is delighted to have inherited land in Australia, he also seems to understand that his proprietorship is intangible and somewhat insignificant. Upon returning to Australia after many years, he revels in the landscape; “Coming back, he found he liked its mixtures of powdery blues and greens, its ragged edges, its sprawl, the sense it gave of being unfinished and of offering no prospect of being finished.” As he looks out at this slice of earth, the “edges” seem “ragged” to him, an indication that he views boundaries and perimeters as imperfect. “These things spoke of space,” Malouf writes, “and of a time in which nature might be left to go its own way and still yield up what it had to yield; there was that sort of abundance. For all [Ashley’s] cultivating, he liked what was unmade here and could, without harm, be left that way.” Rather than wanting to shape this landscape, Ashley prefers to see it as “unmade,” something that will continue to flourish regardless of whether or not it lies within boundaries of his legal property. In turn, Malouf encourages readers to interrogate the very idea of breaking the world up according to ownership, ultimately intimating that such distinctions have little to do with anything but the superficial whims of humankind.
Although territorial control is very important during war, Malouf demonstrates to readers that—like private property—the divisions of a battlefield are socially constructed. When Jim joins the military, he eventually finds himself in the trenches of France, where he and his fellow soldiers fight Germans, whose own trenches are not very far away. Given the physical setup of this kind of warfare, it becomes clear that both Jim’s infantry and the Germans have superimposed their ideological differences onto the battlefield itself, as if the small amount of space between each dugout actually represents some kind of fundamental distinction. In other words, each side has allowed its ideas about opposition and disagreement to construct an imaginary boundary between itself and its enemy.
Interestingly enough, this sense of separation vanishes when the soldiers aren’t actively fighting. One evening, Jim and a dozen other infantrymen go looking for firewood in the forest, where they find an old man planting a garden. This man reminds Jim of Miss Harcourt, and so he thinks about this moment in the coming weeks, but he never returns to the location: “Jim didn’t even know where it was, since they never saw a map—and he had no opportunity of observing what the old man had been planting or whether it had survived.” In this moment, it becomes clear that experience and perspective are more important—more memorable—than specific boundaries and locations. After all, Jim doesn’t “even know where” he is when he sees this man planting a garden, and this is because he’s focused not on a “map,” but on the moment itself. As such, the memory stays with him and informs his life even if he can’t say where, exactly, it took place.
Malouf shows that a shift in perspective can change the way one thinks about boundaries. For example, when Jim first sees Miss Harcourt, he realizes that they’ve both been looking at the same bird, a sandpiper that he has been watching through binoculars and that she has been photographing. When he finally gets to look at the picture she took, he sees that everything but the sandpiper is out of focus, including his own form, which lies obscured in the blurry grass. “He was there but invisible,” Malouf writes, “only he and Miss Harcourt might ever know that he too had been in the frame, hidden among those soft rods of light that were grass-stems and the softer sunbursts that were grass-heads or tiny flowers.” As Jim looks at this photograph, he sees that a frame—a boundary—can accentuate something even as it obscures something else. As such, he comes to understand the importance of perspective; he and Miss Harcourt know that he is in this picture, but the framing and focus of the photograph suggest otherwise. “To the unenlightened eye there was just the central image of the sandpiper with its head attentively cocked,” Malouf notes.
By calling attention to the “central image” of the photograph, Malouf subtly encourages readers to consider that which exists both inside and outside the frame. If Jim can go undetected even as he lies within the photograph, then readers can only imagine what exists beyond the picture’s edges. In turn, Malouf demonstrates that boundaries can—by negation—hint at the utter expansiveness of the world. As such, these otherwise arbitrary borders can do the opposite of what they’re intended to do, ultimately communicating a sense of openness rather than a sense of separation.
Boundaries and Perspective ThemeTracker
Boundaries and Perspective Quotes in Fly Away Peter
It was a new presence here and it made Jim Saddler uneasy. He watched it out of the corner of his eye and resented its bulk, the lack of purpose in its appearance and disappearance at the tree line, the lack of pattern in its lumbering passes, and the noise it made, which was also a disturbance and new.
He had a map of all this clearly in his head, as if in every moment of lying here flat on his belly watching some patch of it for a change of shape or colour that would be a small body betraying itself, he were also seeing it from high up, like the hawk, or that fellow in his flying-machine. He moved always on these two levels, through these two worlds: the flat world of individual grassblades, seen so close up that they blurred, where the ground-feeders darted about striking at worms, and the long view in which all this part of the country was laid out like a relief-map in the Shire Office—surf, beach, swampland, wet paddocks, dry, forested hill-slopes, jagged blue peaks. Each section of it supported its own birdlife; the territorial borders of each kind were laid out there, invisible but clear, which the birds were free to cross but didn’t; they stayed for the most part within strict limits. They stayed.
Ashley was too incoherent to have explained and Jim would have been embarrassed to hear it, but he understood. All this water, all these boughs and leaves and little clumps of tussocky grass that were such good nesting-places and feeding grounds belonged inviolably to the birds. The rights that could be granted to a man by the Crown, either for ninety-nine years or in perpetuity, were of another order and didn’t quite mean what they said.
But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself. Coming back, he found he liked its mixture of powdery blues and greens, its ragged edges, its sprawl, the sense it gave of being unfinished and of offering no prospect of being finished. These things spoke of space, and of a time in which nature might be left to go its own way and still yield up what it had to yield; there was that sort of abundance. For all his cultivation, he liked what was unmade here and could, without harm, be left that way.
It was a landscape, Ashley thought, that could accommodate a good deal. That was his view of it. It wasn’t so clearly defined as England or Germany; new things could enter and find a place there. It might be old, even very old, but it was more open than Europe to what was still to come.
It amazed him, this. That he could be watching, on a warm day in November, with the sun scorching his back, the earth pricking below and the whole landscape dazzling and shrilling, a creature that only weeks ago had been on the other side of the earth and had found its way here across all the cities of Asia, across lakes, deserts, valleys between high mountain ranges, across oceans without a single guiding mark, to light on just this bank and enter the round frame of his binoculars; completely contained there in its small life […] and completely containing, somewhere invisibly within, that blank white world of the northern ice-cap and the knowledge, laid down deep in the tiny brain, of the air-routes and courses that had brought it here.
“So this is it,” he said admiringly. […] “Where you work.”
“Yes,” she said, “here and out there.”
As he was to discover, she often made these distinctions, putting things clearer, moving them into a sharper focus.
“The light, and then the dark.”
The sandpiper was in sharp focus against a blur of earth and grass-stems, as if two sets of binoculars had been brought to bear on the same spot, and he knew that if the second pair could now be shifted so that the landscape came up as clear as the bird, he too might be visible, lying there with a pair of glasses screwed into his head. He was there but invisible; only he and Miss Harcourt might ever know that he too had been in the frame, hidden among those soft rods of light that were grass-stems and the softer sunbursts that were grass-heads or tiny flowers. To the unenlightened eye there was just the central image of the sandpiper with its head attentively cocked. And that was as it should be. It was the sandpiper’s picture.
[T]hey moved with their little lives, if they moved at all, so transiently across his lands—even when they were natives and spent their whole lives there—and knew nothing of Ashley Crowther. They shocked him each time he came here with the otherness of their being. He could never quite accept that they were, he and these creatures, of the same world. It was as if he had inherited a piece of the next world, or some previous one. That was why he felt such awe when Jim so confidently offered himself as an intermediary and named them: ‘Look, the Sacred Kingfisher. From Borneo.’”
But it was there just the same, moving easily about and quite unconscious that it had broken some barrier that might have been laid down a million years ago, in the Pleiocene, when the ice came and the birds found ways out and since then had kept to the same ways. Only this bird hadn’t.
“Where does it come from?”
“Sweden. The Baltic. Iceland. Looks like another refugee.”
He knew the word now. Just a few months after he first heard it, it was common, you saw it in the papers every day.
It seemed odd to her that it should be so extraordinary, though it was of course, this common little visitor to the shores of her childhood, with its grating cry that in summers back there she would, before it was gone, grow weary of, which here was so exotic, and to him so precious.
If he didn’t go, he had decided, he would never understand, when it was over, why his life and everything he had known were so changed, and nobody would be able to tell him. He would spend his whole life wondering what had happened to him and looking into the eyes of others to find out.
But more reassuring than all this—the places, the stories of a life that was continuous elsewhere—a kind of private reassurance for himself alone, was the presence of the birds, that allowed Jim to make a map in his head of how the parts of his life were connected, there and here, and to find his way back at times to a natural cycle of things that the birds still followed undisturbed.
Jim had run a half mile through the swath he had cut in the standing grain with the image in his head of the child caught there among the smashed stalks and bloodied ears of wheat, and been unable when he arrived at the McLaren’s door to get the image, it so filled him, into words. There were no words for it, then or ever, and the ones that came said nothing of the sound the metal had made striking the child’s skull, or the shocking whiteness he had seen of stripped bone, and would never be fitted in any language to the inhuman shriek—he had thought it was some new and unknown bird entering the field—of the boy’s first cry. It had gone down, that sound, to become part of what was unspoken between them at every meal so long as his mother was still living and they retained some notion of being a family.
There were so many worlds. They were all continuous with one another and went on simultaneously: that man’s world, intent on his ancient business with the hoe; his own world, committed to bringing these men up to a battle; their worlds, each one, about which he could only guess.
[…] he was out of himself and floating, seeing the scene from high up as it might look from Bert’s bi-plane, remote and silent. Perhaps he had, in some part of himself, taken on the nature of a bird; though it was with a human eye that he saw, and his body, still entirely his own, was lumbering along below, clearly perceptible as it leapt over potholes and stumbled past clods, in a breathless dream of black hail striking all about him and bodies springing backward or falling slowly from his side. There were no changes.
He saw it all, and himself a distant, slow-moving figure within it: […] the new and the old dead; his own life neither more nor less important than the rest, even in his own vision of the thing, but unique because it was his head that contained it and in his view that all these balanced lives for a moment existed: the men going about their strange business of killing and being killed, but also the rats, the woodlice under logs, a snail that might be climbing up a stalk, quite deaf to the sounds of battle, an odd bird or two […]