Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
Vintage International, New York, 1993
Borrowed from my library.
This book won the inaugural IMPAC Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I picked it up off a display shelf at the library and, finding that Malouf is Australian, decided to read it for the Global Reading Challenge.
Remembering Babylon takes place in the 1840’s, during the colonization of the Queensland area, a time when the indigenous population was decimated by disease and pushed off their traditional territories. Gemmy Fairly, a young British cabin boy, is cast into the sea and ends up following a group of Aborigines.
They left a good space around him, but in a place where the forest thickened and it was almost dark, tried to elbow him off the track, then, when they saw that he was not to be gotten rid of, gave up. One old women, with no sign of personal interest, as if he were a little white hairless thing that could not fend for itself, gave him a mouthful of seeds. Once again, half fearful, they watched while he swallowed it. When they came to a halt at last and made camp, he claimed a place for himself in the second or third ring from the fire, and his neighbours, though wary, made no dispute. From page 25.
Years later Gemmy wanders into a white settlement and tries to adapt to their ways. The settlers are staking out a claim in a strange and alien place and are terrified of the “blacks”.
Most unnerving of all was the knowledge that, just three years back, this very patch of earth you were standing on had itself been on the other side of things, part of the unknown, and might still, for all you coming and going over it, and the sweat you had poured into its acre or two of plowed earth, have the last of mystery upon it, in jungle brakes between paddocks and ferny places out of the sun. Good reason then, for stripping it, as soon as you could manage, of every vestige of the native; for ring barking and clearing it to what would make it, at last, just a bit like home. From pages 9/10.
We learn the history of many of these settlers, hear their inner most thoughts. The narrative skips between different times and voices, a multi-faceted vision of a place and it’s people. It seems everyone is living on the edge, between cultures, between past and future, between reality and dream.
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 took all the various parts of it and made it one. Without that you were blind, you were deaf, as he had been, at first, in their world. You blundered about seeing holes where in fact stong spirits were at work that had to be placated, and if you knew how to call them up, could be helpful. Half of what ought to have been bright and full of the breath of live to you was shrouded in mist. From page 65.
It takes concentration, following the different tracks and trails, and I was reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, a book I read years ago and must read again. Malouf is a poet and novelist and uses myth and history to tell a complex and beautifully layered tale. I am very glad I found and read this book.