Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Malouf turns to Homer for latest inspiration -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

TONY JONES: After making his readers wait 10 years, one of Australia's finest writers, David
Malouf, has written a new novel described as a masterpiece.

In 'Ransom' David Malouf borrows the bones of his stories from what he describes as the first great
book of our culture, 'The Iliad' by Homer.

The epic poem may be 27 centuries old, but Malouf find within it the inspiration for a new tale.

'Ransom' is a meditation on many things; on the depredations of war, on rage and revenge, on the
slow disintegration of age and that which all men must face in the end, the death, which, he writes
"... We've been carrying in us from the beginning."

The central character of 'Ransom' is Priam, the frail, old king of the Besieged city of Troy. Priam
has watched from the walls as the Greek hero Achilles has cut down his son Hector in single combat.

Achilles breaks all the rules of war by mutilating Hector's body and then binding the corpse to the
axle of his chariot and dragging it through the dust.

Such is Achilles' rage and grief over the death of his childhood friend Patroclus, killed in combat
by Hector, that he repeats this ghastly ritual, day after day until King Priam realises he must act
to put an end to this and get his son's body back. But to achieve that he must do something
unprecedented, something shocking and new.

David Malouf, welcome.

DAVID MALOUF: Thank you, Tony.

TONY JONES: What is the epiphany that comes to King Priam when he's in his bed chamber early one
morning after all these dreadful things have happened?

DAVID MALOUF: Well, he has a vision of himself not in his usual regalia but in a very, very plain
white gown, sitting in a cart and riding somewhere and he realises that what is in the cart with
him behind is a treasure, and he has conceived the idea in his sleep somehow, or one of the gods
has come and whispered in his ear, that he should go with the treasure to Achilles and simply, as
one man to another, beg him to give him back his son, and to appeal to Achilles as a father.

TONY JONES: The Goddess who speaks to him in the dream or whatever, tells him that he's wrong to
think that all things are predestined by the gods.

DAVID MALOUF: Yes, she... He thinks she has whispered in his ear that there is also chance, and, of
course, if there's chance you can interfere in your own so-called fate and you can seize the
opportunity to do something which is a free act. That is a very unclassical idea.

TONY JONES: Totally unclassical, I mean. But he realises and actually says, "This is dangerous and
blasphemous idea," so very much unclassical in that sense.

DAVID MALOUF: Well, he's breaking the whole mould of the classical world that he lives in and that
is in some ways the most heroic thing that happens in this book because this is a heroic act of the
imagination, which is different from simply going out and exercising your muscles, which is what
the other epic heroes do.

TONY JONES: What's also new, what's the modern idea that you've just set out there, are you dealing
now with the psychology, rather than the idea that the gods are simply involved in everything that
you do and think and the way you act. So you've imposed psychology on this, on the 'The Iliad'.

DAVID MALOUF: Yes. I mean, the Greeks had an idea of self consciousness, a very strong idea of
that, because they're very aware of, always, of the impression they're making, and everything they
do is meant to be part of their story, the story they want told about them.

But that kind of notion of consciousness in the modern sense, they don't really have. Or they
didn't, if they had it, they didn't know how to talk about it or to call it what we call it, or to
analyse it in our way. And of course what the modern thing to do, as a modern storyteller, I've
allowed myself the privilege of talking about consciousness in a way that no classical writer
would.

TONY JONES: I said at the beginning there are meditations in here, a series of them, one is a
meditation on age and mortality. That's what you're getting at here. I mean, is it something you've
come to at this stage in your life to be writing about this?

DAVID MALOUF: I think we all come to it at some stage in our life because it's a fact, and... And
it has its frightening aspects, but it also has its comforting aspects. I mean, the fact that
death, like birth, is something we all go through and must go through makes it something which
really does reinforce for us our sense of our own ordinariness, our own humanity, the commonness of
death - like the commonness of birth and so many other things - can be something which is about
strength rather than weakness, and about our rootedness in life as well as the fact that we're
going to be torn out of it.

TONY JONES: Is this something you contemplate more as you age?

DAVID MALOUF: Oh, yes. I think we're wise to.

TONY JONES: Let's go back to one of those interesting things about Priam. You mentioned it earlier;
he knows that his fate is sealed, that Troy will eventually fall. And that when that happens, he'll
be hunted down and killed, pretty much like his own son was, and yet he doesn't want to leave that
impression as the final lasting impression of him to the rest of the world.

DAVID MALOUF: He doesn't want that that act of his dying and being dragged out, as he says, "naked
and torn to pieces by dogs in the public streets, he doesn't want that to be the memory that
people will have of him, the final defining memory of his fate.

So he wants to grasp something else and do something that will be so extraordinary it will displace
that as the central fact of the final part of his story, and so he's another one of these people in
this book who is obsessed with the idea of the story that will be told.

TONY JONES: Here's what he says, "The image I mean to leave is a living one of something so new and
unheard of that when men speak my name, it will stand forever as proof of what I was."

What we've got here is a powerful man basically reinventing or spinning the history of his own, his
own life.

DAVID MALOUF: Yes, because he's had a very strange life, because I tell the story here that is not
usually told about Priam, and it's certainly not in 'The Iliad'. And it's told only in passing in
another quite minor book, and that is the story of how as a small child he got that name of Priam
and he was the very, very last of the whole royal line of Troy.

The first time Troy was destroyed by Hercules, and as a small child he's been driven out of the
city with a whole lot of other small children. The children of servants, really, and he's hiding
among them, and his sister, who has also survived, little girl of 12 or 13, she's going to be given
as a prize of war by Hercules to his friend. But he offers her a gift, and he says, "You can have
anything you want," and she takes him down amongst these children and says, "I want him, he's my
brother, and he's the last survivor of the royal line." And Hercules doesn't entirely believe her
but he says, "If that's what you want, then the brat is yours. But because I've kept my word to
you, from now on he will be called Priam, the 'price paid' in Greek."

TONY JONES: The Ransom.

DAVID MALOUF: Or Ransom.

TONY JONES: It's a double ransom.

DAVID MALOUF: And of course, for Priam, the life he's lived as a king has always had the unreality
of being a second life. And going on in his head still from that time was that other life he might
have lived as a slave.

So all the more he understands that your life is not something that's fixed, it can be changed in a
moment, and when he tells that story, reminds Hecuba, his wife of that story, he reminds her of
what it was like to be at the centre of that story. Because if you were at the centre of the story,
you don't know, you're always in the middle, you don't know what the end is going to be.

TONY JONES: It raises a broader question; it raises the question of whether powerful men can
somehow choose the way in which they are remembered?

DAVID MALOUF: Oh, I think people still believe they can do that. But, you know, chance, as we know
and randomness is apt to be a bit more powerful than individual choice. I mean, almost nobody in
the end can determine precisely what the line of their life is going to be, and if that's the
story, I think most people, even great and powerful men - Napoleon, for example - they find they've
lived quite a different story and the story has a different ending from the one they would have
hoped for.

TONY JONES: I was thinking, you know, in contemporary terms, George W. Bush, who wants to be
probably remembered as a liberator of Iraq, or even closer to home, John Howard has put a great
deal of effort into defining his own legacy and how he will be remembered?

DAVID MALOUF: Yes, the curious thing about that is the way those stories, even within our lifetime,
we see them changed. I mean found it extraordinary, for example, that what I thought of as being
the story of Ronald Reagan, for example, turned out, when I heard people in eastern Europe talking
about it after he died, as being quite a different story from the one I would have thought would be
told,

So some of what belongs to what is told belongs to others, and, you know, how somebody affects
others determines how they will tell his story too. I mean what is interesting in all of that is
that all of these stories are open, and what survives is not what happened, but what gets told, and
what gets told can change.

TONY JONES: Let's go to the core of the story in the end, which is the meeting between Achilles,
who's still suffering from his own raging grief and guilt, and Priam, who comes to him out of the
blue. And when Achilles first sees him, what he sees is his own father. He doesn't recognise who
this is coming to him, he sees his father. These are pretty fundamental, again, psychological
underpinnings to the story.

DAVID MALOUF: Yes, and when Priam says to him, "I am appealing to you as a father", Achilles
mistakes that, he thinks, first, that what Priam means is, "I speak because I am a father," but
he's really saying, "I'm speaking to you because you are a father,". Because he then goes on and
says, "You have a son," and so Achilles is really shocked out of his original and perhaps primitive
reaction to a stranger who turns up in the camp. He... What gets taken away from him is his
immediate reactions and he has to think again, and the moment he thinks again, he has stepped
outside his role and he, too, is free to act in a new way.

But Priam's always known that because he says a long way back in the book, "Maybe what I'm taking
to Achilles as the ransom is a chance for him to break out of whatever knot he is in, and for all
of us to break out of whatever knot we are now tied in."

TONY JONES: Let's just go finally to your reasons for choosing 'The Iliad' which appear, according
to the afterward, to go right back to your school days in Brisbane. An extraordinary story, and a
schoolteacher who apparently still exists?

DAVID MALOUF: Yes, I decided after, you know, the book was prepared that I'd write an afterword
pointing out that I've been obsessed with the 'The Iliad' for a very long time, especially obsessed
with that image of Hector being dragged behind Achilles' chariot. The story I tell there is that
one day when I was probably nine, in 1944, one afternoon, second last period on a Thursday when we
usually went out and played tunnel ball, we couldn't go because it was raining. And the teacher
read us that opening of the Trojan story and I'd never heard it for some reason, although I was
quite a reader. And I immediately imagined it all taking place, you know, where I saw Hector's body
being dragged was in the school playground, you know, with its gravel.

And it particularly touched me in some way, because it was about a war, it was about a city that
was threatened with being taken by invaders. This was Brisbane 1944. We still thought the Japanese
were coming. We were in the middle of a war which we didn't yet know was going to end happily for
us, and so it was all for me very close to a kind of reality. And it became for me, really, the
archetype or way of finding metaphors and images for my own fears, anxieties as a child about war.

And I wrote a poem about that in my second volume, which is called 'Episode from an early war' and
I wrote a story about Achilles and Patroclus, you know, 10 or 12 years ago. And I keep being
dragged back to that material. What I'm interested in all of that is in telling the story again and
being a storyteller. Partly that was recognising the magic, really, that happens when someone tells
you a story, or reads a story aloud to you.

TONY JONES: And it raises this obvious question whether today a primary schoolteacher would still
delve into the classics to talk to schoolchildren?

DAVID MALOUF: Well, I think a teacher might well tell the kids a story that seemed like a
compelling story. That certainly is a compelling story. I was interested just recently to see
Umberto Eco in an interview saying quite plainly, "We are narrative creatures; if we are to
understand something, we need a story, that's how we humans understand things." And he said, "If
you want to tell a child what a tree is, the simplest thing to do is to begin with a story and say,
'once upon a time there was a seed." The child will understand absolutely what the tree is. And he
goes on to say that computers are pretty much the same. If you want them to acquire certain kinds
of information, they, too, need to be told a story.

So story telling is important to us, and it's... That's partly what this book goes back to. The
interesting thing was that last Thursday last week, I was in Brisbane about to talk about the book
at a quite large book selling event and an old lady came up to me with an envelope and said, "I've
written this note to you because I thought I mightn't get to speak to you," and she said, "I'm Ms
Finley."

TONY JONES: The teacher?

DAVID MALOUF: The teacher. That was the person.

TONY JONES: She must be very, very old.

DAVID MALOUF: She's 95. That was the person who a lot - I mean, 60 years ago, almost 60 years ago,
almost 70 years ago - was my storyteller, and that seemed like a wonderful way of all of those
things coming around in a circle.

TONY JONES: And it has come around in a circle. We have to end, I'm afraid, that wherever Ms Finley
is tonight, we hope she sees this interview and once again recognises the great impact she had on
one of our finest writers.

Thank you very much, David Malouf, for joining us tonight.

DAVID MALOUF: Thank you.