BOOKS: KING OF THE WILD

Multiple literary prizewinner David Malouf would hate to be pigeonholed as another 'Australian identity' novelist. He'd prefer to write about two characters alone in the dark. Jan Dalley met him

The prince of modern literary prizes is the Impac Dublin Literary Award, and this year's laureate, announced in Dublin in May, was Australian novelist and poet David Malouf. The prize is distinguished not only by the enormous cheque that greets the winner - IRpounds 100,000 - but also by the fact that it is open to any single work of fiction, regardless of the author's nationality. The 1996 shortlist of seven included three translated works (two by Dutch writers, one by a Portuguese), so it's fair to say that the Impac is now the closest thing to a world-wide literary award.

It was David Malouf's last novel, Remembering Babylon - it made the Booker shortlist in 1993 - which netted him the Impac Award, but next month sees the publication here of his eighth and latest novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek. Although he hardly needed the big Irish prize to confirm his standing as a world-class writer, since he has already won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Prix Femina Etranger, and others, Malouf is still perhaps known here more as a Great Australian Writer, than as a Great Writer full stop. Certainly, he is called upon to speak up for his country often, and he does it with conviction.

When we met in London last month, he was just back from Dublin (again!), where he had been giving the opening address to a conference on "Australian Identities".

"There were 155 papers given at the conference," he said with only the ghost of a smile, "on Australian-Irish identity, Australian-Vietnamese, Australian- German, on identity politics - on every possible variation on the theme."

Just as I was reflecting on David Malouf's own interestingly varied background - his father from a Lebanese Catholic family, his mother's parents Jews from south London - and just as my heart was sinking slightly at the worthiness of the discussion we seemed about to have, Malouf said something disarmingly astringent and surprising.

"I'm not sure I believe in that problem. I don't think there is a problem. The only people who seem worried about it are the media and academics - everyone else is quite happy to get on with their lives." He goes on: "Identity has become one of those buzz-words which, quite frankly, one can't use - my paper at the conference didn't even use the word."

By now it seemed pretty clear that melting-pot might also be one of those buzz-words which, quite frankly, one can't use, but Malouf was in any case far ahead of me. His habit of jumping away from the conventionally acceptable thought into something tougher and more elemental was already in evidence.

"What interests me" - about Australian "identity", and the settlers' early history - "is what it has to tell us about what Australians have always been like, how adaptable and quick to learn and clever at finding new ways to live in a new place."

He warms to his theme. "Did you know that within three years, in a place where no European had ever been, where they knew nothing about the climate or the season, where the locals could tell them nothing, and could give them no food brought in from outside, they were supporting the population? And I think we're still like that - experimental and adaptable. But we don't tell one another that often enough."

Such deep feeling for his country and its people shouldn't be surprising, but somehow it is. Malouf's Mediterranean looks, his second home in Tuscany, his 10 years' teaching in England, his easy familiarity with the culture and literature of a handful of European countries, all make him seem so much a citizen of the world that we expect more restraint, if not European- style cynicism. But his two latest novels, especially, investigate the very roots of Australia's modern existence. Remembering Babylon concerns Gemmy, an English boy thrown from a ship off the coast of Queensland, who is rescued and adopted by an Aboriginal tribe. When, many years later, he encounters a small community of white settlers, he crystallises their deepest fears about their wild new country and their own place within it.

After negotiating the minefield of writing about Aborigines, in the new book, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, Malouf takes on an almost equally charged subject - the way in which the incoming whites treated each other in a fierce and brutal land; the way they moulded their brave new world.

IT IS 1827: a remote shack in a desolate landscape. Two men meet. Carney is an ex-convict, the captured member of a bandit bush-ranger gang, sentenced to death. The other, Adair, is the officer who has been sent to oversee the execution, which is to take place at dawn. Through the night, the two men talk, both in their different ways trying to make sense of the paths that have brought them to this place at this moment. They are both from Ireland, although the eccentric grandeur of Adair's adoptive home is in stark contrast to Carney's miserable existence. Through a web of slowly traced connections and in the rich detail of Adair's story, the book pushes elemental questions to the limit - but Malouf is far too skilled a writer to provide any straightforward answers.

It is a tough book, and a dark one. Although the writing is lush at times, especially when calling up the Irish landscape of memory or the stark Australian setting, the whole book is stripped back as if to lay bare its philosophical intent. It could hardly be further removed from the thinginess of much modern fiction, with its street-life and its brand- names.

What interests Malouf, he says, is "an essence, a sort of archetypal situation". He looks for an "extreme moment, to find a way of talking about extreme things. What is a man's fate? Why this thing and not another? I think that's what writers always want to write about - after they've written about lots of other things, like passionate love, and so on.

"If a novel could exist in such a way, you would just want two people in the dark, in a place where no one had ever been, at some time - it doesn't matter when. But of course novels are not like that - as soon as you have two characters, they each have a past and a more cluttered reality. My remote setting was the closest I could get to putting them in a certain situation without having to deal with a lot of social and political contingencies. The situation could have been a contemporary one, but that would have been more melo- dramatic, more journalistic."

For all the rather stern brilliance of Malouf's explanations, the novel has its streak of romance. There is the handsome Fergus, Adair's adoptive brother, six foot six, wild and mysterious, who is adored by Virgilia, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner and third in an idyllic triumvirate of childhood that matures into a more familiar adult triangle.

To Virgilia, Adair sends intensely reflective letters through the long years of his overseas service, and it is because of her - we gradually realise - that Adair's particular quest has brought him to the shack at Curlow Creek. And despite Malouf's desire for "two people in the dark", he has created a rich background of early 19th-century Ireland in all its glory and horror, its beauties and contradictions.

With this new novel, as well as his latest and largest prize, David Malouf's representation at home will be even greater. If he has inherited the mantle of the great Patrick White, it comes at a price - much greater demands on his time, and much more intense academic scrutiny.

"Things have changed so much in the last ten years. You are supposed to be an active agent in the promotion of your book. Gone are the days when you could just send it out with a pat on its head."

He doesn't particularly relish the readings and personal appearance that are now de rigueur, but we're all show-offs, really - put an audience in front of us and we'll always try to win their hearts and make them like the book.

"When you are actually writing, you do it as if nothing else ever existed but you and the world of the book. But putting the book out there is a public act. That's why you don't have any right to complain about anything anyone says, because of the book. If you can't take it, you shouldn't be doing it."

This sounds as if it might be a hard-won equanimity, given the pain most writers suffer at any criticism. "Yes, but you come to realise you can't please everybody. If a book is passionate and peculiar, as a book ought to be, it will put some people off for exactly the same reasons that other people will love it."

But Malouf - the most reserved and private of personalities - finds critical scrutiny much more unsettling.

"All that psychologising - you know, why are so many characters in this book orphans, why so many absent fathers, and so on - I just don't listen to all that. I don't want to write about me - otherwise I wouldn't write these books. If people think, though, that the books are a way of projecting me, of psychoanalysing me, that's fine - but I don't want to hear about it."

Instead of the academic approach ("trying to preserve yourself against the book"), he has to trust his readers to be "child-like, in the best sense; to let themselves go into the world the book creates". He fends off researchers and many other academic enquirers "by telling them the writer is the last person they should talk to. That usually does the trick!"

Malouf is so unfailingly courteous and gently mannered that it is hard to imagine that anyone would feel they'd been given the brush-off. Nonetheless, he does find critical atten- tion "pretty destructive".

"Writers have to be - naive is the wrong word - but in a state of innocence when writing. Everything you think you know you have to let fall out of your head, because the only thing that's going to be interesting in the book is what you don't yet know.

"Fixed ways of reacting are useless. Although you have to be highly conscious on one level - technique and so on - you also have to be in some 'non- knowing' mode for the book to shape itself. And if that turns out to give a whole lot of stuff away about you - well, that's too bad."

! 'The Conversations at Curlow Creek' is published by Chatto at pounds 14.99 on 5 September

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