“An Imaginary Life” by David Malouf is a delicately beautiful story of the urbane and irreverent Poet Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), banished by Augustus for unspecified transgressions to Tomis, the very outposts of the known world, near the Black Sea.
Notwithstanding his real life supplications to the emperor for remission of punishment, it is this grey unreported period that Malouf has explored with such lyrical acuity, with significant ahistorical departures to meet plot imperatives.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a group of stories where Change is the only constant and Ovid’s intention in recounting myths is established from the very beginning. “Prima ab origine mundi, ad mea perpetuum… tempora carmen”- “from the very beginning of the world, in an unbroken poem, to my own time” (Metamorphoses 1.3-4).
Book One of Ovid’s Metamorphoses establishes the book’s theme of metamorphoses and transformations with a creation tale that progresses into human stories leading to the current state of man.
The creation piece is followed by a flood story and a discussion of the ages of mankind. The ages of mankind – gold, silver, bronze, and iron – describe man’s slow progression from a good, wholesome society into a miserable, self-destructive one. The next stories concern tales of gods and goddesses and their manipulations of the human population and each other.
In Malouf’s story of Ovid’s exile, the most accomplished of Roman poets, whose tongue had found such perfect form in metre and verse in a language that isolated and analysed the finest nuances, is forced to learn a ruder and barbarian vernacular, which was more assimilative and integrative than analytical.
In fact they had no word for the concept of freedom, as in their worldview, nothing was free, all things being integrally dependent on all other things. This is the first of the transformations where the limitations of language are brought home to the sophisticate.
One day, while on a hunt with the tribesman, he comes upon a wild child one day which he adopts and cares for “as if he had been handed a new past.” In the very first paragraph of the book, the poet recounts how he has had repeated dreams and visions of “the unchanging other” which may represent both the historical Jesus Christ and the contemporary spiritual consciousness of the New Age.
The poet is trying to reinvent his past and seeks redemption in his original, uncorrupted, state. This is a defining moment for the second transformation of the poet, who will progressively realise the essentiality of grounding oneself in nature to realise one’s true identity.