In Fly Away Peter, a novel about finding meaning in the face of death and war, language imposes a sense of order upon an otherwise chaotic world. Unfortunately, though, it’s not always possible to use words to make sense of life, which is often full of incomprehensible forms of horror and tragedy. For instance, when his brother falls into the blades of a grain harvester, the novel’s protagonist Jim Saddler is unable to express what has happened. No words, it seems, are adequate to describe his brother’s gruesome death. This is not to say that language completely fails when it comes to human expression, however. Later in his life, Jim becomes obsessed with bird names, recording them in a comprehensive list with artistic handwriting that lends a sense of importance to the task. Ashley Crowther, the owner of the land on which Jim birdwatches, is deeply impressed by Jim’s ability to name these birds, feeling as if beauty lurks in his friend’s effort to articulate what he sees. Indeed, Jim proves that naming something is a way of making up for all the things language fails to capture. In this way, Malouf suggests that the mere attempt to order one’s world using words is noble, an endeavor worth undertaking even if language is limited and thus bound to fail.
Jim first confronts the shortcomings of language when he’s fifteen. Riding on the bumper of a grain harvester, his younger brother falls backwards into the machine’s quick blades: “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.” In perhaps the most important moment of his young life, Jim can’t “get the image” of his mangled brother “into words.” Simply put, he can’t express what has just happened. This surely causes him to doubt the efficacy of linguistic communication. Malouf notes that “there were no words for [the accident], 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 […] of the boy’s first cry.” In this passage, Malouf insinuates that there are certain experiences that simply can’t be represented linguistically. The “sound the metal” blades make against Jim’s brother is simply too elemental and ghastly to be recreated in words, and the “inhuman shriek” that the boy lets out is too strange and incomprehensible to describe. As a result, these experiences stay with Jim as memories that refuse expression.
Having watched his brother die in such a (literally) unspeakable way is perhaps what prompts Jim to describe and catalog the natural world. Unable to articulate horror, Jim decides to name things of beauty instead. He does this by pointing out birds to Ashley, who never tires of his friend’s knowledge. When Jim tells him that the “Dollar bird” has “come down from the Moluccas,” Ashley is delighted. “When [Jim] named the bird, and again when he named the island, he made them sound, Ashley thought, extraordinary,” Malouf writes. He continues, “[Jim] endowed them with some romantic quality that was really in himself. An odd interest revealed itself, the fire of an individual passion.” Although Jim has, since childhood, carried around the atrocity of his brother’s death—about which he has never been able to speak—he also has a “romantic quality in himself,” one that becomes apparent when he names the Dollar bird. With the “fire of an individual passion,” he essentially makes up for his failure to articulate the circumstances of his brother’s death, focusing not on this shortcoming but on his ability to summon beauty and impose a sense of order upon the natural world, which is brimming with wildlife waiting to be identified and named.
Language can call forth a sense of beauty and wonder, but this isn’t all it evokes. When Jim writes down the names of the birds he sees on Ashley’s land—working to create a comprehensive record of the wildlife in this “sanctuary”—he feels as if he’s bringing them to life. “This sort of writing was serious,” Malouf asserts, “It was giving the creature, through its name, a permanent place in the world, as Miss Harcourt did through pictures.” Using only words, Jim gives these creatures a “place in the world,” one that feels “permanent.” Language, then, can make something that might otherwise seem fleeting real and tangible. These names, Malouf explains, contain both “the real bird” that Jim has “sighted” and “the species” to which that bird belongs. As a result, the creature’s existence comes to feel solid, since Jim is able to evoke not only its present existence but also its history. Unlike his brother’s death, which feels so unfathomable and thus unspeakable, Jim can use language to describe these birds. And although this may not make up for the incommunicable horror of his brother’s death, it at least proves that some things can find representation in language. This kind of expression, Malouf indicates, is worth pursuing because it makes a “permanent place” for beauty in a world that is otherwise full of chaotic horrors that escape language.
Language and Naming ThemeTracker
Language and Naming Quotes in Fly Away Peter
His voice was husky and the accent broad; he drawled. The facts he gave were unnecessary and might have been pedantic. But when he named the bird, and again when he named the island, he made them sound, Ashley thought, extraordinary. He endowed them with some romantic quality that was really in himself. An odd interest revealed itself, the fire of an individual passion.
“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.”
[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.’”
Using his best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down, he entered them up, four or five to a page. This sort of writing was serious. It was giving the creature, through its name, a permanent place in the world, as Miss Harcourt did through pictures. The names were magical. They had behind them, each one, in a way that still seemed mysterious to him, as it had when he first learned to say them over in his head, both the real bird he had sighted, with its peculiar markings and its individual cry, and the species with all its characteristics of diet, habits, preference for this or that habitat, kind of nest, number of eggs etc.
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.
It was like living through whole generations. Even the names they had given to positions they had held a month before had been changed by the time they came back, as they had changed some names and inherited others from the men who went before. In rapid succession, generation after generation, they passed over the landscape.
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.