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Simply the most beautiful depiction of early Australia,
This review is from: Remembering Babylon (Vintage International) (Paperback)It would have taken a lot of courage to leave one's home, one's country in mid-nineteenth century Scotland and set sail for another land. These were not times of overseas holidays or television documentaries that served to educate one about the world, a state of knowledge that applied to pupil and teacher alike, and I doubt many of those early settlers had any idea just how big the world was or how far away on it lay the land called Australia. Mind you, I would imagine that by the time they set foot on their chosen destination they at least knew they were never going back.
Imagine the uncertainty that filled their hearts as they set about creating new lives for themselves and their children, looked to establishing roots for the generations to come, experienced such a sense of fear and responsibility. This was a vast, unknown continent and all that the settlers knew was that they were on the very fringe of life, fighting with all their hearts and minds and physical strength to make it work.
Imagine yourself in their situation then as this strange being emerges from the bush, from somewhere beyond your immediate comfort zone, from whence an unknown but certain danger threatens and yet who, for it seems to be a who, purports to be not entirely unlike you, speaks some words you recognise but is still, somehow, different. Gemmy is that being, and it is fundamental that he appears first to a small group of children, young enough for curiosity to respond rather than fear, so that Gemmy, whilst not accepted, is nonetheless given the opportunity to establish some sort of presence in this frontier community rather than be simply dismissed or worse.
David Malouf paints such a picture of Queensland in this period; we laud trailblazing forbears now and rightly so but at the time such ambition as would become the Australia of today was not dreamt of, simple survival was success, food on the table an achievement, the hope that it might be sustained which grew into such a determination and resolute ambition that even now we cannot appreciate the extent of their fortitude and belief. Time and inclination and learning and empathy and a fundamental awareness that you might not be the first to inhabit this land were all simply missing from the minds of these settlers, so Aborigines were a threat not an equal, became collateral damage as we so simply dismiss such things today, and the environment was to be conquered not embraced. Did it have to be so in order for Australia to emerge, quite possibly, can we judge them, I doubt it, at least not with any legitimacy, and Malouf injects enough doubt to suggest that any harsh judgement would itself be unjust; one cannot presume to override their clear and present sense of danger with a contemporary sense of moral indignation.
I ramble on and Malouf does not. His prose is tight, beautiful, cutting and enlightening; we learn not to judge but to behold and wonder and marvel that such people as these believed that their lives had worth and could be employed to improve themselves and the world they chose as their own. We should bow down to such humble and unthinking people whose simple resolution led directly to the world we cherish and enjoy today. And while we do, enjoy the marvel that is David Malouf's writing.