David Malouf, Remembering Babylon (©1993, Vintage 1994)
Remembering Babylon is an A-Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. The Stranger is Gemmy, who was thrown overboard as a boy from a ship somewhere off the Queensland coast in the first half of the 19th century. Already not quite the full quid after an impoverished early childhood in London, and traumatised further by his near death by drowning, he was taken in by a group of Aboriginal people. The Town is a tiny community of white settlers who arrive in the area some years later. As Gemmy observes them, his half-remembered previous life stirs in memory, and on encountering a group of children he stammers words David Malouf has appropriated from the historical Gemmy Morrell (or Morril), ‘Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object!’
Although we have some access to Gemmy’s inner life, the book is mainly about the small settler community, about their range of responses to this part white, part Aboriginal man, and more broadly about the process of British settlers accommodating to the new Australian reality. Malouf would never put it this crudely, but it’s as if Gemmy, for all his addledness, has adapted to the new world more fully than any of them, so his presence becomes a catalyst for their differences and tensions to be exposed.
In Gemmy’s early days in the settlement, for example, a number of the men try to extract information from him about ‘the blacks’, but he resists:
And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless. He did not intend it that way, but he too saw that it might be true. There was no way of existing in this land, or of making your way through it, unless you took into yourself, discovered on your breath, the sounds that linked up all the various parts of it and made it one.
Yet while this theme is being explored, the narrative adopts one character’s point of view after another – two of the three children who first meet Gemmy, their parents, the young school teacher, the minister – and each time on feels one is meeting a real person, someone Malouf knows well, perhaps even someone he in some way is or has been.
I read Remembering Babylon as part of a body of work by non-Indigenous writers, including Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2005), Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World (2012) and David Brooks’ essay ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert‘ (2008), which explore ways the encounter between these vastly different cultures plays out in non-Indigenous minds. It’s not really a historical novel: I doubt if any part of the Queensland coast was settled as peacefully as this fictional one apparently was, or if there would have been so little contact (ie, none apart from Gemmy) with the local Aboriginal people if it had. It’s surely symbolic rather than historical that an aristocratic woman lives in a beautiful Queenslander just a little way off in the bush from the rudimentary dwellings of the other settlers.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read this book, but it’s interesting to see that some of the themes of Malouf’s recent poetry – particularly the idea of humans as creating a planet-wide garden – were being developed 20 years ago.
The group is meeting tonight. I can’t go because there are things happening in my family that have priority. It’s a pity, because there’s a lot to discuss.
Oh what a shame. For some reason I vividly remember when my group discussed this book – it was my house – though I don’t recollect much of what we discussed as it was somewhere between 1994 and 1997. However, it’s a book I’ve often thought I’d like to read again. I don’t like using this word, but it feels like it’s one of those “important” books that is worth knowing more than cursorily. And anyhow, Malouf’s writing is always great to read.
That’s my sense too, Sue. It’s another of David Malouf’s deep meditations on what it means to be Australian
Yes … that’s a good way of putting it … and that is his “mission” really isn’t it?