Remembering Babylon (1993) – David MALOUF

And so a new university year begins, and along with it, a list of books I have to read. On the plus side, the course I’m doing this  year is all about contemporary Australian writing, so there’s some pretty good stuff on the list. And this is the first book on a list of books that I am really looking forward to. Granted, I’ve already read some of them, but I am being introduced to major Australian writers – like David Malouf.

As three young children are playing on their property in outback Queensland one day, their life is turned upside down by the appearance of a man who comes out of the bush. He appears to be white, but acts like an Aboriginal. After much discussion, the town places the man in the care of this family, whose lives will be turned upside down as the thoughts and opinions of everyone else in the town are slowly revealed, and things begin to get out of hand.

What a fantastic concept Malouf has taken hold of in this novel. That a young white boy could be brought up by an Aboriginal tribe, then attempt to be reintegrated into ‘civil’ society is brilliant. So often we get novels about what it means to ‘be’ Aboriginal, or what it means to ‘be’ a certain ethnicity. And the really smart thing Malouf has done in Remembering Babylon is that Gemmy himself doesn’t get very much screen time. Told from varying points of view, Gemmy himself gets only two chapters in the novel. Which is enough, because for Gemmy, the way he has been brought up is not unusual – it just is. For him, there’s no quest for identity, no question of who or what he is, because he is all he has ever known. On the other hand, the other chapters deal with how the people in the white settlement deal with their own views of what Gemmy is, and what he represents. Perhaps most touching is the relationship Gemmy and Jock, the father of the family share. Malouf has written it perfectly, with Gemmy as the overenthusiastic young child you can’t get rid of, and Jock the exasperated father. It’s beautifully done, and when all hell breaks loose, it works a treat.

I think the other thing that Maloouf does very well is to createa town where no one belongs. As the beackgrounds of each of the major players is slowly revealed, everything begins to make sense. Each and every one of these people resents living in Australia (well, pre-Federation Australia), and I don’t think any of them really want to be there. Some of them thought they were going to South Africa, others Canada, but none were ready for the harsh reality of the Australian sun. And this really plays into their reactions to Gemmy and the events that occur around him – their prejudices towards the Aboriginals, and to each other, are all revealed, and everyone is unhappy. Oddly enough, I loved the priest, Mr Frazer, who writes this beautiful passage near the end of the affair, where he is promoting the idea of a truly Australian way of farming – and everyone, including the Premier of Queensland, shoots him down. Again and again, these European people cling to their European sensibilities in the hope that it will save them.

Much like in this review, the ending of the novel does peter out a little out, and we’re never totally sure how the events of the one year or so that Gemmy lived in town actually affect everyone. What does show, though, is the affect it has on the children who found him in the first place – they are never able to forget him and what he brought to their town. And for them, it was pretty good. Now, I need to go and find more Malouf…

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11 thoughts on “Remembering Babylon (1993) – David MALOUF

  1. adevotedreader says:

    I haven’t read this yet, but am a great fan of the Malouf I have read. The Great World, Conversations at Curlow Creek and Dreamstuff are my favourites so far. And he has a new novel out this year!

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Hello Matt
    I subscribe to your blog, and was immediately interested in your review of Remembering Babylon because I’m very fond of Malouf. It sent me to my reading journal (Volume 1, 20.4.1997) in which I recorded my confusion about this novel. (I’m not an academic, just a keen reader, though I did major in EngLit many years ago at Melbourne Uni). This is what I wrote, and I’d be interested to see if any of it makes sense to you…

    “I probably read this too fast, to find out what happens, only to be disappointed with what happens…
    Gemmy Fairley is a white boy, who after being thrown overboard from a ship, spends 16 years with Aborigines and then comes to live in a pioneer community in Qld last century. He impacts on both individuals and the community in different ways, and finally disappears back into the bush, but the riddle of his existence remains.
    Malouf writes beautifully. There’s poetry in the way he describes the bush, the night and the accoutrements of daily life such as houses and tools. The reader becomes aware of shadows and wind and heat , as if we are there in the story itself. This power with words extends also to the perspective of the characters, and we are inside many heads, exploring memory, fear, superstition and vanity as different characters are exposed.
    Most chilling is the discovery of Gemmy’s early years in England. It can’t be described as childhood because he didn’t have one. His memories, evoked by the smell of a wooden chest, are of working in a wood factory as a very small boy, old enough to crawl under the machines to sweep away the sawdust, and cunning or desperate enough to eat the shavings mixed with it. Somehow, from this appalling existence as a ‘maggoty boy’ he becomes Willett’s Boy, used by the rat-catcher as a personal slave and horribly exploited. Fed only on scraps even as he cooks sausages for Willett, he is made to retrieve rats from their cage for the entertainment of others; he’s also used as a sexual toy by the girlfriend. One day he sets fire to the room in which they lie in a drinken stupor, and runs away to sea, where he survives again until he falls ill and is thrown overboard by the crew because he is too much trouble to keep.
    He seems to be a bit simple after all this. By the time he emerges into the life of Lachlan and Janet Beattie, he is a man, not a child like them, but he remains a childlike figure throughout the book. (It reminds me of Billy Budd, but it’s too long since I read the book to make clear connections.) His speech, both English and Aboriginal, is limited, and he stutters as well, but there’s also his inability to conceptualise, to make sense of his world. He believes in magic, thinking that his life is captured on paper when the minister, Mr Fraser, records it; when it is time to leave the community because of the suspicions he arouses, he takes back what he believes is the paper – but it is only the homework exercises being corrected by the schoolteacher.
    Nothing really explains the fears and the jealousies Gemmy arouses, except maybe that he represents the fear of the Aborigines who still haunt the land so painfully wrought into a semblance of civilisation. Perhaps that’s intentional because fear of Gemmy is so irrational. Maybe, with the wisdom of hindsight, fear of the Aborigines was irrational too, though Malouf may be denying their history of defiance. I don’t know.
    This is a disconcerting story. It needs to be read again, slowly, to find the clues I missed that perhaps explain why it was that Lachlan and Janet are so haunted by his existence. Was it because they failed to protect him? Because they sent him to Mrs Hutchence for his own safety? Because they didn’t send out a search party, as they would for anyone else?
    Was it only because he was such a damaged being that he never really had a friend, or a lover?”

    I see from other reviews online that other readers are also mystified by the fragmentary threads, the strange struggle for identity and the questions about what civilisation might be. I’d be interested to see learn how your tutors at university handle this most interesting book!

    • matttodd says:

      So, I had my tute for this on Monday, and I think we all pretty much came up with the same idea – that Gemmy is there as a catalyst to create some interesting reactions from the white settlers. We talked a bit about their role as exiles, and whether or not they saw Australia as a prison or as a promised land.
      And, of course, we talked about whether the text is racist or not. I don’t think it is, and I think we came to a consensus about that as well.

  3. Mike says:

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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  4. estelle says:

    “Much like this review…” — hilarious. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I have never read ANY Malouf. There is a group of canonical Australian writers I have never ventured near at all. I’ll get there eventually. I can’t remember which university you’re attending — are you in Melbourne?

    • matttodd says:

      I’m from Sydney, but I’m actually studying at the ANU. So I’m in Canberra – the party capital of Australia…

  5. Excellent review! I have provided a direct link to your review in my Aussie Author In Focus – David Malouf post at this link:

  6. […] reviews of David Malouf’s titles from other book bloggers:An Imaginary Life – ShigekuniRemembering Babylon – A Novel ApproachRansom – The Historical Novel ReviewRansom – ANZ LitLovers […]

  7. […] think it’s fair to say, a symbol of what Scott wants Australia to be. Having recently reread Remembering Babylon, it’s interesting to compare Gemmy with Bobby – two characters that are set up as […]

  8. Alannah@KCSO says:

    Fantastic review. I am currently reading Malouf as a component of my lit course, and your writing very much helped me to gather third-party thoughts on the text, as well as better articulate some of my own. Thank you! (Yes, I realise this post was published yonks ago.)

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