The mythical, removed world of the Roman poet Ovid is brought into stark reality through David Malouf’s energetic and compelling novel, An Imaginary Life. Sent into exile in a landscape with a foreign language and people, Malouf’s Ovid tracks his emergence from years in the wilderness via the pieces of familiar humanity that begin to constitute a new feeling of comprehension that goes beyond words.
In the startling winter months of this exiled place, Tomis, Ovid begins by describing his feeling of dissolution and desperation as being akin to the landscape; it is this barren state of mind that Ovid occupies, indicative of a feeling of crushing isolation, silenced by misapprehension and meaningless moments. So life stretches out for Ovid until he enters the natural world, wild and complete with the reinvigorated burgeoning of his imagination, hurried along by the introduction of the Child. Upon seeing the Child’s image scattered in pieces of footprints and half imagined flashes through the trees, Ovid finds his poetic language lacking, ‘I have nothing like it in my poems, that were full of strange creatures caught between man and some higher or lower creature’. It is this metamorphosis, the one amongst Ovid and the Child, in terms of language, identity and self awareness, that Malouf seeks to emphasise as the most important of all, the one towards ‘our further selves … as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree’.
Malouf’s introduction of the wild child into a progression through the wilderness of self-realisation is a device that he has utilised in other works, most notably in Remembering Babylon. In An Imaginary Life, the wild child becomes Ovid’s obsession, his poetic blind spot, and his journey’s end and beginning. In the Child, Ovid sees the nexus of fragile humanity, as well as the untapped source of the supernaturally gifted and miraculously unaffected. Upon taking the Child into the civilisation of his adopted, exiled community, Ovid notes his declining health, vitality, and other worldly beauty. As the Child is lead into a new realm of bounded consciousness, the natural world appears to restrict and distort, leaving the Child vulnerable, ill, and devastatingly human. For Ovid, the tragedy of the Child’s degeneration speaks to what he has lost in amongst himself and now longs to rediscover; a feeling of the whole universe within him, raining and thundering without effort, in a universal language that speaks towards reconciliation, not struggle or control. Ultimately for Ovid, to save the Child is to save himself.
Put simply, Malouf writes beautifully. Without pretension or hyperbole, he manages to effortlessly incorporate the spiritual and the earthy, suggesting a feeling of hovering over the text while being simultaneously pulled along with it. Malouf’s understanding of language as a cathartic and intensely personal experience is almost unparalleled in contemporary fiction. This is a book about language. Malouf acknowledges its strengths and limitations, while reminding us of the power it has depending on the imagination and integrity of the user.