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“An Imaginary Life” by David Malouf Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2019

Introduction

Postcolonial literature comprises the writings expressing the reaction to the phenomenon of colonization in the world history. Raising the issues of de-colonization and the consequences of the political and cultural dependence of the colonized territories, the postcolonial writers criticize the racist inclinations of colonizers and the colonial rule in general.

The issue of national identity is one of the central problems discussed in postcolonial literature. Shedding light upon the outcomes of colonization, the postcolonial authors criticized the beliefs in racial superiority and emphasized the importance of resurrection of national identity on the territories which have been colonized previously.

These authors try to explore the concept of national identity by covering the effects of post colonial processes in their books. The novel An Imaginary Life by David Malouf is a work of postcolonial literature which shows postcolonial transformation of a child who has been brought up by wild animals and is involved into the civilized world.

Thesis

The paper critically analyzes the novel An Imaginary Life by David Malouf. The author used the principles of postcolonial literature in his novel. Illuminating the effects of social colonization on the indigenous population, Malouf shows it from a new perspective, demonstrating the touching liaison of Ovid and the child of the wilderness.

About David Malouf

David Malouf is Arab (Lebanese) by descent author, who was born on Australian soil and received international recognition as one of postcolonial writers. Malouf’s ethnical origin and international background had impact on the choice of themes and perspectives for his literary works.

The motifs of physical displacement concern the main characters who do not feel that they belong to the place in which they find themselves at the moment. These shades of meaning are implied in the novel An Imaginary Life and can be explained with the cultural background of the author.

As opposed to other Arab-Australian writers, David Malouf as an Arab author writing in English used the themes of marginalization in the community and the cultural diversity of society in his works without overemphasizing them. Malouf has spent the greater part of his life in Australia but for several years spent in Europe. Al Maleh (2009) noted that “his [Malouf’s] writing is poetic, musical, and firmly grounded in the Australian landscape” (p. 46).

For this reason, the immigrant motifs are not directly developed in his works but only implied as a hidden theme of his writing. The characters created by Arab-Australian author as a rule do not fit their surrounding and do not feel their belonging to the location in which they are placed. Malouf’s ethnical origin had impact on his writing style but did not become a decisive factor predetermining his talent of a recognized writer (Randall, 2007, p. 78).

The motif of the main character’s spiritual displacement is used by Malouf in his novel An Imaginary Life. Thus, Ovid is not completely accepted by the community and “has the sense of not belonging to the place where he momentarily is” (Al Maleh, 2009, p. 46). The ethnical origin and multicultural background of Malouf influenced his perspective for depicting the events in his books.

Overview of the novel An Imaginary Life

An Imaginary Life was Malouf’s second novel. It is a story about a Roman poet who is exiled from his native country and sent to an uncivilized village at the Black sea. Thus, the immigrant motif is laid into the basis of the plot of the novel under consideration.

The characters of the novel have to face the challenge of living in an unfamiliar community suffering from marginalization and the language barrier in it. They have to solve the moral dilemma, choosing between adapting to the realities of a new society and returning back to the country of their origin.

In the novel An Imaginary Life, Malouf focuses on presenting the development of the events without describing their personal life views. This means that he just describes the hardships that the character goes through but does not provide readers with an opportunity to look inside of the characters’ consciousness and evaluate the processes in their inner world.

Making a child of the wilderness one of the central characters of the novel, the author uses the image of a child who has been brought up by wild animals for demonstrating the impact of culture and environment on human personality. Ovid makes friends with a boy and they create an alliance for struggling against the difficulties of their marginalization in a foreign country.

It is significant that Ovid not only tries to teach the boy Latin and the conventions of the Roman culture but also learns some basic truths from this child himself.

The concept of childhood and wilderness can be associated with the tabula rasa and the process of the boy’s adaptation to the realities of the community of Tomis symbolizes the process of socialization which undergoes every person living in a particular community. The child’s lack of upbringing and the background knowledge make the various stages of adaptation more explicit for the readers.

Post colonial aspect of the novel An Imaginary Life

The central theme of postcolonial literature is the consequences of colonization for the colonized territories and their population. The postcolonial writers criticized the racial and cultural prejudices which were used by colonizers as justification for their actions. The authors working in this literary style focused mainly on the social aspect of postcolonial problems. David Malouf as a postcolonial author demonstrated the consequences of colonization for the feeling of national identity on the territories which have been previously colonized.

An Imaginary Life shows the consequences of such social phenomenon as colonialism on the example of Ovid, a poet exiled from Rome. Firstly, the main character thinks that he has been sent to another country because of his origin, but later he realizes that it was his activity as a poet that has become the main precondition for his banishment and alienation.

The main plot lines demonstrate the negative consequences of colonization for the people of Rome. The exile from Rome provides Ovid with opportunities to learn the peculiarities of life in the village community which absorbs him later. This novel like most of works by Malouf sheds light upon the issues of national identity and the feeling of alienation in the community and not belonging to the place.

The main focus is put on the national identity of the people of Rome. When Ovid goes to Tomis, he is physically separated from his accustomed landscape and thinks the reasons of his exile over. Suffering from the language barrier, the main character, however, is open for new surrounding and experience, trying to adapt to the rules of the new community, including its culture, language and traditions of the indigenous people.

The postcolonial themes are developed in the novel when Ovid as the main character has to live with the representatives of another ethnic group and is induced to learn their language and traditions for absorbing into their community. Using the aesthetics of a postcolonial novel, Malouf criticizes the issues of national discrimination, showing the difficulties of Ovid caused by the language barrier in communicating with the village population and the cultural diversity which becomes a hindrance for their interaction.

The plot line of alienation of the main character in the new land of Tomis at the shore of the Black Sea is characteristic of a postcolonial novel with its aesthetics of marginalization in the new community and the loss of the feeling of the national identity.

Ovid narrates the story of his experience of alienation in a foreign country with its unknown culture and a different language that he had to adapt to. He takes Tomis as the landscape and shows that the atmosphere of this land is hostile for him and requires making efforts for adapting to it.

The lack of understanding of cultural diversity excluded the chance that the village community could accept Ovid as he is and the only way out for the exiled poet was to learn a new language and traditions of the new community. The dominating indigenous culture induced the newcomer to take measures for adapting to the new community though Ovid has never been fully absorbed with it.

Malouf (1979) stated that the postcolonial motif of alienation can be shown in the narrative where Ovid says that “I have found no tree here that rises amongst the low, grayish brown scrub…Even the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom have not yet arrived among us” (p. 14). Ovid therefore tries to adapt to his situation and to understand the landscape in which he finds himself. Nobody knows Ovid’s native language in Tomis and the only thing that is left for him is the lonely monologues.

It seems to him that even the whole landscape speaks an unknown language and therefore he has to adjust to it by learning the new language and appreciating the culture of the people. Malouf (1979) states that this is shown in the narrative where he says “The landscape itself when night shadows flow over it, is a vast page whose tongue I am unable to decipher, whose message to me I am unable to interpret” (Malouf, 1979, p. 17).

Another post colonial aspect is evident in the people of Tomis who are portrayed as illiterate and uncivilized population that lives like animals. This is shown in their language and their social life, beliefs and practices. Ovid, however, finds himself and establishes relationships with people of Tomis to interact with them, learning their language and their culture for this purpose.

He even engages in some of their cultural activities, for example, he goes on a horseback to visit the grounds where funerals occur and even performs the ritual cry. This shows that Ovid manages to learn the traditions of the new community and makes attempts to adapt to it. He gets more absorbed into the new culture and makes friends with the indigenous people, for example, Ryzak and their relationships change from a dutiful one to one where they can share and reciprocate with each other.

The postcolonial motifs can also be found in the plot lines depicting Ovid’s relationships with the village inhabitants emphasizing the triumph of the universal values. Ovid is still not fully absorbed into the new culture of the people of Tomis because of his status of being an outsider and therefore he still does not understand the cultures of other people like the fact that women can have a strong influence in the community.

Observing these significant differences in the systems of beliefs, Ovid enhances his awareness in the sphere of cultural diversity. For example, the mother of Ryzak had a strong influence on what her children do and the decisions that they make. The aspect of other and self is shown in Ovid’s struggle for his sense of self-identity which he does not lose even while adapting to the traditions of Tomis.

The author’s choice of the title for the novel can be explained with Malouf’s intention to show an imaginary stage of the development of culture which can be defined as pre-cultural. At this stage people used alternative means of communication and their system of beliefs was different from the generally accepted standards.

Ashcroft (2001) noted that “Ovid is going back beyond the symbolic order of the patriarchal reality of the Roman Empire to the imaginary phase of being in which sexuality, language, identity are in a dynamic flux of formless potentiality” (p. 56). Placing Ovid into the primitive and illiterate community, the novelist emphasized the differences between the representatives of various cultural groups and demonstrated the significant place of culture in human consciousness.

On the other hand, the character of the boy of the wilderness shows the unlimited opportunities of people’s adaptation to the peculiarities of particular culture and community. In the frames of the postcolonial approach to literature, this plot line can be associated with the importance of the concept of the national identity on the postcolonial territories.

David Malouf uses aesthetics of a postcolonial novel by creating a character who is exiled from a country with the history of colonization into the country that is characterized with social and cultural preservation. The Empire of Rome where Ovid came from had a history of colonization of other lands, justifying it with the assumption that the Roman culture is better developed and prior to other civilizations.

There was a high sense of authority in the land of Rome and they would criticize other cultures. This kind of behavior was caused by the colonial experience that they had and this experience affected their way of thinking and behavior. The postcolonial experience became the main precondition for Ovid’s banishment because he was accepted as an outsider and stranger in the Roman community.

The cultural changes in the context of postcolonial literature are observed in what an individual is transforming from to what an individual is transforming to.

Postcolonial literature therefore views the social and cultural changes in the area after colonization. It looks at what the area was and what it has been transformed into after colonization, implying that it is the colonization process and experience that causes these changes. Postcolonialism takes into consideration the changes occurring after colonization because now the people who were previously colonized are independent and acquired a new sense of self identity.

They can now operate on their own and make their own decisions and even celebrate their own culture as opposed to following the instructions of colonizers and being absorbed in their culture. When Ovid was exiled, he had to stop doing the things that he was accustomed to do in Rome and stop using the language that he was using in Rome and he had to change to a newer language and a newer culture even though they were unfamiliar to him.

This change was caused by the social and cultural differences between Ovid and the people of Tomis. For instance, Ovid was literate while the people of Tomis are depicted as illiterate and uncivilized population. Since Ovid was a stranger, he had to obey the rules of a new landscape. The poet had to get absorbed in the culture, acknowledging that nobody would recognize the peculiarities and uniqueness of his culture in the new place.

As it has been mentioned previously, postcolonial literature focuses on the consequences of colonization, including the struggle of colonized population for their national identity and freedom in celebrating the cultural traditions they choose. Postcolonial literature explores the subject of culture and its integral elements. The novel An Imaginary Life describes the process of Ovid’s adaptation to the traditions of Tomis.

It describes the cultural and language changes that he goes through in Tamis and how he deals and copes with those changes. Post colonial literature therefore deals with the fact that the population of the colonized territories has finally achieved independence. In the novel, Ovid has difficulties with the changes in language and culture and decides to be absorbed into a new culture and prefers adaptation to struggle.

Conclusion

The main emphasis of postcolonial literature is put on the effects of colonization of particular territories and the struggle for the national identity of indigenous population. As one of postcolonial novels, An Imaginary Life depicts Ovid’s alienation in the village and the process of his adaptation to the traditions of the new community.

Depicting a touching liaison of Ovid and the small boy who has been brought up by the wild animals, the author shows the process of their adaptation to the rules of a new community. The changes in the child of the wilderness under the influence of the civilization are an example of postcolonial transformation of a personality.

References

Al Maleh, L. (ed.). (2009) Arab voices in diaspora: Critical perspectives on Anglophone Arab literature. New York, NY: Rodopi.

Ashcroft, B. (2001). On post-colonial futures: Transformations of colonial culture. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing.

Malouf, D. (1979). An Imaginary Life: A novel. California, CA: Picador Publishers.

Randall, D. (2007) David Malouf. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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