THE COUPLING of two so different novellas as these seems peculiar at first: one concerns a young Australian's experiences just before and during the First World War; the other is an intensely inward first-person narration by a contemporary Italian terrorist. David Malouf, however, is a richly imagistic writer, philosophical and literary in the best sense; his terrorist is hardly the subject of a slick thriller. Though probably not written to do so, his stories do reflect and enrich one another by being together.
"The Bread of Time to Come" is the simpler and--at least for awhile--the quieter of the two. Ashley Crowther has returned to pre-World War I Australia after 12 years in England with only a vague idea of what he wants to do with himself and with the thousand acres of land he has inherited. On his land he discovers Jim Saddler, a lower-class man similarly vague about his future, who until his 20th year has been content simply to observe, alertly and patiently, the natural world around him, especially the countless varieties of birds that migrate to Australia in season. Ashley hits on the happy idea of leaving his land as a wildlife sanctuary and hiring Jim as a kind of Adam to name the beasts. Also a part of the picture is a nature photographer named Imogen Harcourt, a fiercely individualistic woman who arrived in Australia with her brother years before and decided to stay. The situation seems too good to be true: a plantation owner not interested in exploiting and ravaging his land, a young man who stumbles across a job that allows him to do exactly what he most enjoys doing, a sympathetic older woman to guide and encourage them both.
It is too good to be true. The modern world intervenes, in the form of World War I, and Jim feels compelled to enlist simply in order to understand the changes that are taking place. Ashley soon follows. At first Jim's war is liberating and a bit of a lark, but not once it moves to the front; Malouf's descriptions of trench warfare are vivid, sickening, horrifying, and--in their last scenes--almost surreal. Men in that war and, as Ashley sees, in the world to come, are parts in a machine, interchangeable, expendable, a far cry from what a man could be in the little paradise Ashley had founded. Determined individualists in the modern world are like the peasant whom soldiers found digging a garden in a bombed-out forest: obviously mad (or, perhaps, the only sane people left). Imogen, sitting back in Australia and meditating on the war, would call the world mad. She understands that the life of men should be as Jim's once was, like the life that birds lead. "A life wasn't for anything. It simply was."
"Child's Play" has seen this modern world evolve still further; its nameless narrator has postponed what he thinks of as his real life in order to perform a single act of political terror. He gives few details from his past, and only the vaguest reasons for wanting to pursue this course. The terrorists in his world resemble bureaucrats in a huge corporation: They live in barren apartments, spend routine days preparing themselves in an antiseptic office; they do not know one another and have no idea whom they are working for. To reveal themselves to one another as people would make them less effective as terrorists: it would make them too human.
The narrator's rather fascinating assignment is to assassinate a world-renowned man of letters, and Malouf's portrait of this writer--a man of iron discipline and deep compassion, enormous intellect and playful irony--is masterful. To the extent that we are all the children of such an artist --his voice has epitomized a previous generation--the drama is Oedipal, and thus, in one of the title's several senses, child's play. We resent the man who in some ways shaped us, who saw from his lofty eminence what we would become. His knowledge of us is insufferable, and we kill him in order to live.
In his isolation, the narrator studies the approaching event from every conceivable angle. Already he sees the photographs of the piazza where the assassination will take place as those of a historic site; he imagines it in newsprint and news photograph, media which distort and deaden an event but also in some ways create it; he sees himself as the hand of fate toward which a life's work has been leading, as a figure in the writer's biography; he sees the event prefigured in a dream. None of these meditations, however, prepares him for the event itself, which in the shock of the actual becomes, like the battle scenes of "The Bread of Time to Come," almost surreal, revealing that nothing--not art, nor history, nor news, nor even dream--is a match for bare reality.
"Child's Play" is the richer of these two works, but also perhaps the less fully realized, with a few loose ends and odd episodes; still, it is a striking story whose scenes and images remain with the reader long after he has finished it. Malouf is something of a primitive narrator, rough around the edges, but he is also a deeply serious writer, not to be taken up lightly. In these two unique perspectives on the modern world, he exhibits the kind of eccentric vision that one might expect from an outsider, an Australian, say, or an isolated terrorist, or a genuine artist.