Lucid Life, Slippery Truths: Theme of Othernessin its Different Facets in Australian Author David Malouf’s Novel, The Great World

Saranya Mukherjee, St. Paul’s C.M. College, Kolkata

Download PDF Version


The present paper deals with the anxiety within is reflected in the out-world otherness of the two main characters in David Malouf’sThe Great World: the paper shows how, apart from mere ‘class-difference’, the two contrasting individuals constitute a type which in his later novels can be seen as a trope to explore a plural existence, a different Australia that does not simply and exclusively belong to either the white or the black.

But only in blown music from the town’s
     Quaint horologe could time intrude…you’d say
     Clocks had been bolted out, the flux of years
                                                                   (“Nuremburg”, Kenneth Slessor)

The land of Australia is full of unexplored and as a result wrongly speculated places and spaces creating a room for newer elucidations. Australia is rich with its several myths and stories of antiquity that reappears in Malouf’s fiction in several guises making the narrative open for further interpretations. From the backyard Mediterranean garden as mentioned in his 12, Edmondstone Street to the self of the individual meeting macrocosm, David Malouf’s fictions give a picture of a spatial travel twisting the straight and by extension, dominant chronological specificity. Through the use of myth, mythical allusions, anecdotes, names of classical antiquity, his long fictions progress creating a balanced dance of the logical and the so called irrational forces often represented by the two contrasting individuals as in Dante and Johnno, in the novel named after the latter, or Vic and Digger in The Great World or Jim and Ashley in Fly Away Peter. A self-destabilizing anxiety within is reflected in the out-world otherness of the two main characters: apart from mere ‘class-difference’, the two contrasting individuals constitute a type which in his later novels can be seen as a trope to explore a plural existence, a different Australia that does not simply and exclusively belong to either the white or the black: it is not only a ‘reverse assimilationism’ but furthers with greater reality that transubstantiate a newer continuation. The two individuals apparently in binary oppositions, in actuality come into view through an interchange of persona, with a confusing liminality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian1, therefore problematizing the process of compartmentalizing. This paper would focus on the strange trajectory of the human experience in Malouf’snovel, examining, if all these could create an alter-narrative or discourse concerninganti-colonial aspects along with the subjective view of the author both in the personal and exposed paraphernalia of the Australian existence that wades through a turbulent external world.

In the Book of Lies, Aleister Crowley talks of the condition or the state of being in doubt. The discussion centers on doubt expressing that it should be applied to everywhere, in a more paradoxical manner even to itself: to question. The ontological questions remained in Malouf’s novels. His novel, The Great Worldexplores an Australia that is beyond the reach of the regulatory forces of the colonizers. Furthermore, these novels put up an image of the country that emerges with all individuality against the macro affairs of the without.

The Great World, as a war-epic, spans over the lion’s share of a century, from WWI to the stock market crash of 1988. Like its precursor, Harland’s Half Acre, this novel also involves the degradation and dehumanization endured by prisoners in theSoutheast Asia during WWII. The two characters, namely, Vic and Digger, despite beingpoles apart, share an undeniable intimacy by virtue of their fact of incarceration. Beneathlarger perspective of the Great Depression and the Holocaust, the post-war mining andproperty boom, these two micro-lives portray more entropic dimensions of humanexistence. Two contrasting individuals, the unambitious loaner, Digger and the boastfulentrepreneur Vic come into contact in course of the narrative. The initial juxtapositionwas forming a gradual spectrum establishing a subtle psychological relationship with theAustralian land that was becoming broader, reshaping their lives.

The sign of questioning with its curb leaves a surreptitious movement under the surface of the con successful Vic with his son Greg being busy with liberal sloganeering. The clandestine connection between the micro and macro reveals itself in several meticulously worked out details leaving a space, latent, almost invisible for the unheard, but alive. The superficial clichés of national character involves the myth of “digger”, as Australian soldiers were commonly nicknamed during WWI. The encyclopedic memory of Digger is redressed, imbued and pitted against the reality in the trenches, suffering the ‘visibility’, lying bare, gang chained. His stoic silence armed with a conspicuous, seemingly self-annihilating indifference is contrasted with the very much “living” Vic. A curious archetype of the Australian male, the nomenclature goes beyond its conventional existence of “a bushman” or the “the gold-digging” associated with Eureka Stockade. The legendary quasi-physical qualities of a ‘digger’ are reinforced making the account different as, to quote Serle, “it remains for the historian to explain, reinterpret and popularize the crucial role of the digger…place it in truer perspective for the next generation” (Serle 158). The remarkable accounts by Malouf towards the end of 12, Edmondstone Street leave a clue to this evolving Self, living beyond the topographical identity down the years. Malouf, in this book describes the metamorphosis of a child from the world of imaginary to the realm of the symbolic involving the socio-cultural scenario. This includes several myths of the land that ascertain a close relationship with the indigenous culture. In all the three novels this idea is incorporated in different ways.

David Horton’s Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia contains an article on Aboriginal mythology according to which the mythic map of Australia would show thousands of characters; they are diverse in their significance but they all in some intriguing way are connected to the land. Some emerged at their specific sites and stayed spiritually in that purlieu. Among these mythical figures many were shape changing, transformed from or into human beings or natural species, or into natural features such as rocks but all left something of their spiritual essence at the places noted in their stories. They have a very subtle metaphysical presence in Malouf’s fictions.

In The Great World, which also talks of the Great War, an out-of-clutch existence reappears in another dimension. This time, it is the character of “Digger”, a man with phenomenal memory, who confronts with the past in a similarly cryptic way while reading Tolstoy’s masterpiece. AsishNandy, in his The Intimate Enemy, talks about the psychological relations as well as reactions to colonialism. Nandy’s notion of ‘player’ is intriguingly curious to note in this context. The player accepts the machinations of an alien colonial power and accommodates the colonial regime’s prescriptions for selective memory. The ‘counterplayer’ denotes rebellion in direct acts, in reality, in a much concretized form.

During the years of transportation from 1790 to 1850 and in the 20th century, a Puritan code of denial grasped the convict heritage in Australia, one-third of which was Irish. Australian historian Robert Huges termed it as the ‘conspiracy of silence’. This conspiracy of silence goes beyond the penal statement or mere collective amnesia regarding a tortured past. The involvement of the Australian transported people in the Great War was immense. The masculine and therefore useful ‘Diggers’ who have gone to oblivion served the purpose of the most memorable GREAT CAUSE!

Digger’s huge memory here plays the role of neither a ‘player’ nor a ‘counterplayer’ but the passive ‘super player’ as one couldsee Malouf giving the curious picture of Digger reading Warand Peace. The Aftermath, for Digger was spending nights at Bondi Junction, in the library of Mac, their prisoner-friend, killed by the Japanese. The long list of birds listed by Mac, found inside the pages of the book interrupted War and Peace, transporting Digger into a different time; and through this time-travel offering an alternative space. With the turning of the page Digger’s reading is interrupted. The long list of the birds- the white-throated honey eater, a flock of fire-tails, a Regent bower bird among others –by Mac intrudes into the scene of ‘War’ as well as ‘Peace’. So for ever after, recalling it, Digger would recall the micro stories of an ‘unimportant’ individual Mac. The montage of memory is very subtly established through a small, almost negligible incident. The lacuna remains beneath the metanarrative of great protagonists and their greater deeds.

The avian existence passed into obscurity down the years. Digger returned safeguarding the letters of Mac, delivering them to their writer, Iris, Mac’s sister-in-law. Here, again the significant presence of a woman is notable, with a subtle nomenclature. In Greek mythology, Iris is the deity who unites gods with humanity: her role is that of the connector. Later they became lovers, and continued their life together. This sudden introspection opened up the door to passing moments very subtly “digging out” that missing-link still existing within Digger.

His inner universe, reshuffled, with a slip of paper written, five, ten, or fifteen years before remains as a ploy. The cumulative gap, the silenced lacuna comes alive with a simple bookmark; thus themes integrate for the cause of ‘resistance’ involving the emergent New Literatures. According to Nandy the creativity of the indigenous “non-players”, who, in Michel Pecheux’s terminology ‘disidentify’ with the colonizer, contributes to cultural responses. Apart from its political significance, a deeper ongoing is visible which overtly levels the two old geezer fishing together in an outer physical space. The closing chapters returning to Vic’s childhood place the stupendous memory game floating. The physical territory of the prospective wheeler-dealer in the Sydney money market, the gradual mechanized soulless money-making is subdued in the metaphysical space, living within Digger. The wild and natural Australia, losing its beauty and more precisely strength, with gradual urbanization, is recollected in the tranquil backwater.

From Durer’s imagined art world, as presented in Slessor’s poem, to the present age, a squared existence has sprung up. In the pluralistic socio-cultural scenario of 21st century, literature in any form comes endowed with a plethora of implications. The concept of ‘Dreamtime’ which we have mentioned in the beginning of the discussion, provides in this present day with a sense of a lack of closure in the narrative. It is Virgiliawhose name itself gives the sense of mythicalimagination, therefore a left out notion of novel formations, beside the polyphonic space of the two confronting individual juxtaposing in a single and singular plane, namely Australia. It is Virgilia and Iris who remain as a constant connectors. Diggers could slip away, but Virgilias stay carrying the future, and in the very core having a woman who would everlastingly rock back and forth tracing and digging the way to haven and heaven.

The content of the opening pages featuring a broken down country store in The Great World with a naïve woman watching two people fishing, re-affirms in the end, goes on completing the circle, telling us of–

all those unique and repeatable events, the little sacraments of daily existence, movement of the heart and intimations of the close but inexpressible grandeur and terror of things, that is other history, the one that goes on, in a quiet way, under the noise and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet. (Malouf283-4)


  1. Nietzsche, in his famous, The Birth of Tragedy refers to the concept of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the sun-god who denotes reason whereas Dionysus stands for irrationality. In the present paper we are trying to see the concept of the Apollonian as essentially an Eurocentric one while the Dionysiac Represents the indigenous spirit.


  1. “Australian_Aboriginal_mythology”: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. d. Web. 19th December, 2010.
  2. Book of Lies: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. d. Web. 9th December, 2010.
  3. Malouf, David. The Great World. New York: Vintage International, 1993. Print.
  4. Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy:Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: OUP. Press, 1998. Print.
  5. “Nuremburg”: Kenneth Slessor. Poem Hunter. d. Web.9th December, 2010.
  6. Serle, Geoffrey. “The Digger Tradition and Australian Nationalism”. Meanjin Quarterly 2 (1965): 149-58. Print.

Saranya Mukherjee is Guest Lecturer for P.G. Students, St. Paul’s C.M. College. She is Researcher and translatorCreative Writer.  Shehas completed MA and M.Phil.(English) from Calcutta University and has worked in translation projects of SahityaAkademi and with a faculty, University of Oslo. Her area of interest is Postcolonial theory and literature, modern -postmodern theory and fiction.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015


Hits: 588