David Malouf: An Imaginary Life
Malouf was a poet before he was a novelist and this book is clear evidence of this, not just because of the subject matter – the Roman poet Ovid – but because it is written as only a poet could write it. The story is about Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea region and his adaptation to his new life. We know very little about why he was exiled, what happened to him when he was there and even where he is buried, giving Malouf free rein.
At first Ovid struggles. He does not speak their language and they do not speak his. He misses his creature comforts and his friends. Gradually, however, he learns their language and begins to respect them for what they are. Though a city man, he soon takes an interest in the nature in the area. He goes hunting with them and helps the fishermen. All the while, Malouf gives us a magnificent description of how Ovid feels and how he perceives the people and the natural surroundings. Apparently, Ovid had had a dream when in Rome of a wild child. While hunting he hears of and sees evidence of such a child, who lives wild. After a long period, the child is seen and caught and taken back to the village. Ovid cares for him and tries to educate him, teaching him Latin and the local language. However, it is the boy who teaches Ovid more, giving him instruction in nature’s ways.
The local populace are a bit suspicious of the boy, feeling that he has the spirit of an animal and that this could cause them harm. When the boy gets sick, they fear that this spirit will harm all of them. The boy gets better but they get suspicious when the son of the family with whom Ovid is staying get sick but he, too, recovers. However, when the headman gets sick and dies, there is trouble and Ovid and the boy flee, making their way to Tomis, where we know Ovid lived. A wonderful book and one that is interesting to compare to Ransmayr‘s Letzte Welt (The Last World).
First published 1978 by Chatto & Windus