Remembering Babylon is an extraordinary, unforgettable novel that raises challenging questions about identity and attitudes to people from other cultures.
David Malouf’s tale is set within a group of early European settlers in Australia in the mid 1840s. Thirteen year old Gemmy Fairley is a white English boy rescued by indigenous people when he was cast ashore from the ship where he worked as a cabin boy. For sixteen years, he lived among a group of First Nations people, adopting their way of life and their language.
Though memories fade of his previous life in England, some part of him longs for a world he cannot quite remember. So when he hears that some white people have settled along the coast, he sets out to find them.
His re-entry to a European way of life does not begin well. He’s taken captive by three children from a settler’s family who believe the strange, dark skinned man they discover near their compound, is one of the tribesmen who live in the wilderness.
Gemmy awakens the curiosity of the settlement; they don’t know what to make of this “pathetic, muddy-eyed, misshapen fellow” whose utterances make no sense to them. Over time, as his story is pieced together, he becomes a source of tension. His origins make Gemmy one of “us” yet his close connections with the “savages” make him one of “them”.
Remembering Babylon is a fascinating exploration of the complexities of identity. While the settlers struggle to understand and accept him, Gemmy himself wrestles with questions about who he is and where he belongs.
He walked swiftly now over the charred earth and was himself crumbling. If he did not find the word soon that would let him enter here, there would be nothing left of him but a ghost of heat, a whiff as he passed of fallen ash.
The white settlers are largely ignorant about the people who have lived in the territory for hundreds of years. They know nothing about how the indigenous people live or their relationship with the land yet they hold fast to the view these people are their natural inferiors and savages. The first time Gemmy appears in their midst, the settlers are not even sure they are seeing a human.
… The stick-like legs all knobbed at the joints, suggested a wounded waterbird, a brolga or a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another, all spells and curses, had been changed into a bird, but only half way and now, neither one thing nor the other was hopping and flapping towards them out of the world over there, …the abode of everything savage and fearsome.
What the book disproves however is any notion that the white settlers are superior, more peaceful and civilized than the “blacks” who live in the swamps and marshes beyond the settlement. The settlers people prove themselves capable of extreme vicious racism and savagery when they believe the life they had toiled to carve from dust and earth is under threat.
Few of them have any doubt that this land belongs to them and must be protected at all costs. Rarer still are those, like Ellen McIver whose family provides shelter for Gemmy, who acknowledge that there were people on this land long before they arrived:
She had not understood, ‘til she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with breath – a threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years…
Remembering Babylon is a thought-provoking novel delivered in a richly symbolic and evocative style. Malouf skips between perspectives on the same events, challenging his readers to look beneath the surface of what is said in order to arrive at the truth. This is the kind of novel that you finish and then want to immediately begin again to discover what you missed the first time.
Remembering Babylon, David Malouf’s fifth novel was published in 1993. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
This post is in support of Australia Reading Month, hosted by Brona’sBooks.