That was the book that made me discover Australian author David Malouf and as I read the very first lines I immediately feel in love with his writing and this novel.
We are taken back to the Roman Empire, and we are presented with a first person narrator that we are to discover to be the poet Ovid, exiled at the furthest edges of the Empire in a village called Tomi, living his last years in a desolated land among people whom he call “barbarians” and whose language he does not understand. There he encounters a wild boy believed to be brought up by a deer, he befriends him and brings him back to the village to take care of him and try to civilise him.
The relationship with the Child is central in the novel. While attempting to define and understand his surroundings, Ovid finds in the boy his own “Other”, but as the relationship grows deeper he disturbs the established social structure of the village and is forced to flee again, this time far into the unknown steppes. The Child guides him in this new journey of discovery, and it is there, finally, that Ovid will learn a new language, the one of nature, and become one with it.
Throughout the whole book, language is a device of control. It causes Ovid’s first exile, since it was his words that threatened Roman dominant class. As we go on reading we become more and more aware of the power of language: knowing the names of things, being able to communicate with others and tell stories, are all powerful acts, and it is the deprivation of language the true exile.
Ovid is separated from himself, yet he will learn how to be alive. He will be transformed until he finally re-appropriates the true language. It is the reconciliation with the self and the Other (who no longer is so), with nature and earth. The last sentences of the novel are like a poem:
It is summer. It is spring. I am immeasurably, unbearably happy. I am three years old. I am sixty. I am six.
I am there.
Malouf is a poet too, and his novel writing conserves all the beauty of poetry. He is a detailed and delicate writer, very lyrical and full of surprising and charming images and insights, and the stories hide numerous layers of interpretations and meanings. You end up underlining passages and noting them into a notebook, reading pages out loud to yourself to savour the softness of words. And it is then you discover the power of language.
The true language, I know now, is that speech in silence in which we first communicated, the Child and I, in the forest, when I was asleep. It is the language I used with him in my childhood, and some memory, intangibly there but not quite audible, of our marvelous conversations, comes to me again at the very edge of sleep, a language my tongue almost rediscovers and which would, I believe, reveal the secrets of the universe to me. When I think of my exile now it is from the unverse. When I think of the tongue that has been taken away from me, it is some earlier and more universal language than our Latin, subtle as it undoubtedly is. Latin is a language for distinctions, every ending defines and divides. The language I am speaking of now, that I am almost speaking, is a language whose every syllable is a gesture of reconciliation. We knew that language once. I spoke it in my childhood. We must discover it again.