on 9 April 2005
'Remembering Babylon' is the third novel that I have read by this wonderfully accomplished Australian writer: the other two, both of which would unreservedly get a 5-star rating, are 'Child's Play', an exploration of the mind of a young man planning a terrorist act in Rome, and 'A Great World', dealing with the impact of war on two Australian men. 'Remembering Babylon' well-deserves the plaudits lavished upon it, which include winning the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Award, as well as being short-listed for the Booker.
The plot of 'Remembering Babylon' revolves around Gemmy, a white youth who is taken in by an isolated settlement of Scottish migrants in mid-nineteenth century Queensland. Gemmy has been living for many years with an Aboriginal community who found him washed ashore after the then young cabin-boy had been thrown overboard. The remainder of the novel essentially examines the interaction between Gemmy and the white community: Malouf achieves this by relating the thoughts and actions of Gemmy and the expertly-crafted range of diverse characters within the settlement. Although compassion and tolerance are shown by members of this community towards Gemmy, the novel mainly illustrates the mistrust and fear that even supposedly civilised individuals and communities show for that which is unknown or incompletely understood. Thus, the white community is fearful of the 'half-savage' white boy within their midst; the hostile, alien Australian landscape, and the native inhabitants of the land, whilst Gemmy is mistrustful of many of the settlers and afraid of the answers to his self-examination as to his own identity.
'Remembering Babylon' offers a range of treats for those interested in language. Gemmy's cry on first encountering children from the white settlement - "Do not shoot. I am a British object" - prefaces some interesting observations on the acquisition and retention of language. The white settlers' spoken English reflects their Scottish roots, whilst the schoolmaster's interests allow for more linguistic play. Two passages of note in a novel replete with fine language are one on bee-keeping (of all things) that transforms the life of Janet, a young lady coming of age in the settlement, and another describing bushfires that is guaranteed to make expatriate Australians homesick!
In short, 'Remembering Babylon' is a truly remarkable reading experience. On the strength of this novel and my limited exposure to his earlier works, I have recently bought three more of his novels. If you love quality contemporary fiction, then 'Remembering Babylon' would be an excellent introduction to the work of this exceptionally fine writer.
Mr. David Malouf has the ability to take familiar topics, amend them, and create a new viewpoint, a valid book, and worthwhile reading experience. Fear generated by the unknown as perceived by ignorant or well-educated simpletons is not new. That these feelings are often expressed in terms of racial tension; hatred and violence are routine, not an exception, and anything but a novelty. In, "Remembering Babylon" the Author tells the tale in a manner new for me, and even though the behaviors of many involved were predictable, the new perspective and quality the Author brings to it made for very good reading.
As he has in previous works he sets the tale in Australia, and once again brings settlers from Europe, in this case Scotland. Mr. Malouf then takes a familiar human interaction, which is by definition tragic, and it is here he makes it his own. In terms of Race, Gemmy is as white as any of the settlers. He spent thirteen years in London, and then was washed upon the coast of Australia where he then lives amongst the Native Aborigines for sixteen years. As Gemmy has lived the better part of his life is the harsh sun he is no longer as light in complexion as the self-described white newcomers. Gemmy one day happens across the path of some children, and in fear of his safety announces he "is a British Object". The irony of this statement could be dwelt on for pages by itself.
There are many relationships a reader can explore in this story. I felt a key one was between Gemmy and the family headed by Jock that takes him in. Jock does so to please his wife, as Gemmy is not a person he would bring into his home of his own volition. The reaction of the balance of the settlement ranges from degrees of fear, to desire to destroy the race that Gemmy has morphed into from the viewpoint of the duller of the participants. Gemmy at once becomes a trusted member of Jock's Family, and the focus for every evil fantasized, imagined, or counterfeited by others.
The storyline must be left for the book; however one experience shared by Jock and Gemmy is of note. Gemmy treated like the savage he is not, routinely stays several steps ahead of those who attempt to exploit him to gain knowledge of his tribe, and then extinguish them. Far from being intellectually inept, he combines the street smarts of the former London Urchin, with the practical knowledge of sixteen years of learning to live in harmony with the same land the settlers come to conquer. He becomes a harmless, productive and trustworthy part of Jock's Family if not the community.
Gemmy knows his own heart, and those he has come to live amongst. He is under no illusions as to how he is viewed, or how he sees the world. Jock goes through a major reassessment of what he thought he was, as events build around Gemmy. The Author explores in a thoughtful manner what our thoughts are made of, how they change, and whether it is we that change, or our views of others that change us.
The book is filled with smaller observations that are material for contemplation. The loneliness of settling a new land is a reality, but when the Author takes one player and has her ponder the thought of being the first dead to be buried here as well, and the loneliness of knowing no family that has gone before, no one to join in the new resting place, is beyond poignant.
Another great piece of work from this Author.
on 23 July 2001
David Malouf depicts yet another specimen of humanity in his novel, Remembering Babylon. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Gemmy Fairley, the young man who has lost his essential whiteness among the aborigines in the heart of the unknown emerges as the real son of Australia. Having lived a very sordid childhood as the boy of a heartless rat-catcher, he experienced nothing but what was ignoble and degrading in the underpriviledged white world that nursed him. When he is found by a tribe of aborigines, he is lightly taken in by the new community. He gradually sloughs off his white selfhood and goes deeper and deeper into the heart of nature - the tender womb of Australia from which he emerges again as the Australian New Man. when he steps into the closed world of the White Man after sixteen years, he is only grudgingly taken in as a painful example of white degradation in alien surroundings. With a penetrating wit and a florid style, David Malouf depicts the fateful encounter between British White civilisation and the weird product of its transformation on the edge of the 'livable' world. Malouf's prose teems with the life of nature and the tumult of human emotions. His language is profoundly poetic and his varied concoctions of words come to testify to the depth and intensity of meaning. With Malouf, you have access to the human in its most profound sense.
Setting this book in the mid-1800's on the nearly uninhabited north coast of Australia provides David Malouf with plenty of leeway to explore some of his favorite themes. The book begins with the return to "civilization" of an English cabinboy who had gone overboard twelve years prior and had been nursed by aborigines. With the north coast now being settled by people fearful of the shy aborigines, who they think may be a threat to them, all the characters are frightened by their isolation: the settlers from life in England, from the more populated centers of Australia, from the aborigines, sometimes from each other, and certainly from the strange young cabinboy who has made contact with them; the former cabinboy from his "countrymen," from the society of the sailors he served, from the aborigines who nursed him, and from the new society now being established on the north coast.
All have differing views of reality, different values, and different understandings of what is important. The reader is forced to question what constitutes "civilization" and to ponder the extent to which we can have a "real" world without recognizing the importance of the supernatural and respecting those people who allow it to inform and transform their lives. As in "The Conversations at Curlow Creek" and in "Harland's Half Acre," Malouf's main character must decide whether he will live in civilization as he has found it. Mary Whipple
on 31 March 2008
Remembering Babylon (1993) explores the balance between settler and indigenous traditions in very interesting ways. Set "in the middle of the nineteenth century", a new settlement just establishing itself on the coast of Queensland is disturbed by the arrival of a "creature" who at first resists definition. The attempts to define him in the first few pages reveal the settlers' own fears. He comes from "beyond the no-man's land of the swap, that was the noble abode of everything savage and fearsome... of nightmare rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark." The first response is that "We're being raided by blacks", but the creature has "stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints", its "leathery face scorched black" but also has "sun-bleached and pale-straw" hair. Finally, this hybrid, puzzling, indefinable creature calls "Don't shoot... I am a B-b-british object!" The story that emerges from a kind of narrative charades is that this "creature" is, in fact, a British man, who, having fallen overboard from a ship skirting the coast, has lived among the Aborigines for the last sixteen years. As Gemmy, as he turns out to be called, gradually remembers his own English past from renewed contact with the British settlers, his arrival causes unease. The newness of the settlement is indicated by the regional accents: the family at the centre of the narrative are Scottish, and their dialogue is written phonetically to indicate this. There is a nervousness and uncertainty in the community. The boy who finds Gemmy is unnerved by his "whining blackfeller's lingo", and the "idea of a language he did not know scared him." While there are those who want to help Gemmy, it is his emergence from a landscape which is still alien which scares the settlers, and his association with the Aborigines: "Was he in league with the blacks?... Did he slip off when they were not watching... and make contact with them? Did they visit him secretly at night?" Gemmy's arrival in the community brings its fears into focus, and fears provoke violence. As one of the characters says about the Aborigines: "We ought to go out... and get rid of 'em, once and for all." Suspicious about Gemmy, his presence begins to divide the community, breaking trusts and friendships. While the reader's understanding of Gemmy grows and sympathy for his predicament and past increases, the greater the rejection and distrust by the settlers. As with Arundhati's Roy's The God of Small Things, one of the key aspects of the novel is the scars borne by the children in their adult years, but the novel also shows the gulf between British experience and Australia, the fears and aspirations of the new setters as they forge their new communities in a place they barely understand, and crucially with Gemmy how the past is ordered and defined, with the relationship between language and experience. In its own evocative language, and as a novel about language, this is a tremendous novel.
on 13 December 2012
"Remembering Babylon" by David Malouf
This book is the story of a young boy from London who is cast ashore in South-west Australia in the early years of settlement by people from the United Kingdom in a land which had already been occupied for thousands of years.
When close to death he is found and taken in by these people despite his strangeness to them. He learns their language and their ways and becomes, effectively, one of them.
The young boy, Gemmy, is six at that time, and twenty-two when he hears stories of strange slug-coloured people in the south. He decides to go and meet these creatures.
He first contacts a boy and his two younger girl cousins. After a while they take him home. This family is from Scotland, but the settlement comprises a mix of people from throughout the UK. Jock McIvor is the girls' father and takes in the boy.
David Malouf has a gift for putting these people's words on the page. I am a Scot and, when I read the speech of Jock McIvor and his family, I hear the sounds, the lilt and the cadence of my language and my country in my head. I have never experienced this with any other non-Scottish writer. It is not just the sounds, but the actual words which Malouf uses.
As Gemmy begins to integrate a little we see the difficulties which the other settlers are having in working out what he is all about, and the well-meaning misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what he is. There is even deliberate misinterpretation by the young teacher, George Abbot, of what he is asked to write down by the minister because he feels that to be forced to be a scribe is below his dignity.
We don't know if, when or how this may impinge on Gemmy's fortunes.
We see fear of the unknown in the minds of at least some of the settlers. Is Gemmy a spy for the Aboriginals. Will they all be murdered in their beds. They already lived with these fears before Gemmy arrived. We can almost see the thought forming in their minds "The best way to remove a fear is surely to remove the cause of the fear". Can this be behind the cruelty and massacres which we know that European settlers (not all of them, clearly) perpetrated in the lands which they took from the original inhabitants throughout the world?
We begin to see clandestine acts of vindictiveness towards Jock McIvor because he took Gemmy in in the first place, and he defends him against the other settlers.
I'm nearing the end of this book, and I can clearly understand the description of David Malouf as "one of Australia's finest writers". However, as one who has read widely for more than fifty years I would stretch that to "one of the world's finest writers in English.
Janet, one of the young girls from the start of the story, now growing up, is being taught bee-keeping by Mrs Hutchence. Malouf's description of an experience which Janet goes through later is magical. A swarm of bees lands on her and covers her completely, crawling all over her. She is without fear since, somehow, she knows that they will not harm her. She feels at one with the swarm. She goes on to become an expert in bees, bee keeping and breeding.
Gemmy takes it on himself to end the bullying and harassment by removing the cause of the fear. He walks back into the bush to meet those who are effectively, even if not by race, his own people.
David Malouf’s novella ‘Remembering Babylon, short-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize, considers the otherness of a white ‘aboriginal’ and isolated settlers living mid 19th-century northern Queensland.
The book, really a novella, opens with this strange ‘black white man’ emerging from the bush ‘in a shape more like a watery, heat-struck mirage than a thing of substance, elongated and airily indistinct . . . bowling, leaping, flying’ to confront a group of startled children. Plaudits are due to David Moores for a cover illustration that perfectly reflects this image.
The figure is that of Gemmy, whose fragmentary memory allows ‘it’ to call out 'Do not shoot, I am a B-b-british object'. Over time, haltingly through a few remembered words, gestures and much guesswork, the settlers piece together Gemmy’s history. His arrival has an impact on the members of the community that is described in this haunting book. The backstories of the McIvors and Gemmy offer the reader a greater understanding of their later lives. Gemmy’s early life as a London street urchin working with a rat-catcher, in particular, is a remarkable piece of writing.
For a time, Gemmy is taken in by the McIvors, both proud Scots, their daughters, Janet and Meg, and their nephew, Lachlan. Despite his harmless nature, Gemmy causes suspicion in the minds of some of the community who live on the very extremity of the Empire. They fear his helping other natives to attack, his difference from white Europeans and his representation of the prehistory that surrounds and threatens to engulf them. Gemmy’s presence forces them to confront an unthinkable future ‘Could you lose it?" they ask themselves, eyeing Gemmy. ‘Not just language but it’, the core of themselves, their human spirit that separates them from the surrounding ‘impenetrably dark’ rainforest. In contrast, Frazer, the ineffectual minister, sees the opportunity to learn about the flora and fauna of the region, Lachlan is keen to understand the aborigines’ trailing and hunting skills whilst the McIvors recognise in Gemmy a needy human being.
When two aboriginals meet Gemmy, rumours and suspicion multiply. After McIvor saves him from an attack by a group of settlers, he is sent to live in an isolated house with the strange Mrs Hutchence, a beekeeper, and her ‘family’ [ the one area of the novel than failed to ring true]. As a result, Janet is stimulated to a life-long study of bees that offers a link to the final part of the story. Frazer’s attempts to get the authorities to recognise the significance of the native knowledge that Gemmy possesses are unsuccessful. The differences between the settler community and these political representatives are as just as great as those between the former and Gemmy.
Gemmy is separated from the settlement and decides to return to a life with the aborigines, but first he must take back his life from the settlers. The final part of the book, set during the Great War, shows Lachlan and Janet reflecting on the events of their eventful childhood, and we see how much they were influenced by Gemmy half a century earlier.
Malouf’s language throughout is beautiful, whether it is describing the settlers’ community, the psychological pressures of living on the edge of the civilised world, the hostility of the weather, the flora and fauna, the fears of the known and unknown, or presenting the characters and their arguments about Gemmy. Although the latter is a central character, Malouf does not attempt any description – anthropological or otherwise – of the aborigines, who remain hidden in the neighbouring bush. They remain as much in the shadows to us as they do to the settlers.
The author contrasts the child-like naivety of Gemmy, his acceptance by the McIvors and the racially-motivated plottings of other settlers. The actions are described from a range of perspectives by characters that are all only too believable. This is a complex, but easily-readable, book whose ending may not satisfy all readers. However, it addresses fundamental issues of race, intolerance and fear that appear to be part of human existence. Highly recommended.
on 29 March 2013
this book tells the story of colonisation in Australia through the eyes of a group of families north of Brisbane.
Here attitudes to the frontier and particularly towards native people is a powerful allegory.
on 10 February 2013
Poetic and captivating- Beautiful writing which captures a period and interior life of the characters. I compared it with Kate Grenville's 'Secret River' and found 'Remembering Babylon' a more sensitive and humanitarian portrayal of early settlers. I particularly enjoyed the connections with nature and natural resources. I will read it again I'm sure.
on 27 June 2004
Malouf doesn't need much introduction, in all truth, the fairest comment one can make is "read him." With that said and in the spirit of contradiction, here is why I believe "Remembering Babylon" is such a great work of literature. The main story of "Remembering Babylon" is the return of Gemmy, a White young man to a European enclave in Australia, after having being thrown overboard from a ship and having lived among the Australian Aborigene since he washed ashore.
Now this is the way the book begins, but it's narrative takes deeply into the heart of longing and pain of many of the people who settled the European colony.
To me Gemmy, and through him everyone else in the novel, returns to a deeper place called language. Language not only as forgotten words but language as the site of memory where the body recounts what has been exposed to and has endured. Language that also shows each settler's agony in a strange land, unable to grasp the vast difference between Human and Landscape.
It's not a coincidence that the women of the settlement can express such compassion for Gemmy, they know something about being different themselves. As a matter of fact, the women in this story are among the most thorough and complex renditions of a woman's character portrayed by a male novelist, anywhere in contemporary Western literature.
This a story of people who have left their place of birth, however that happened. People who lived ever since in that space that never reaches the end destination nor manages to ever return to the place of their departure.
Everyone dwells in this place which is not limbo as much as a cauldron where hope and despair burn, and its particular alchemy might turn into a new identity, even a singular dignity.
Perhaps my reading is quite personal and not what you expect, to make a decision to buy any book. But this is what this book might offer you, a journey to a time and place when you might even find yourself.