David Malouf, and his novels The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) and Remembering Babylon (1993), have been brought to mind by a recent post at Whispering Gums (Spotlight on David Malouf) to which I commented that I had found The Conversations at Curlow Creek “dishonest”. My reason for saying that was that I had covered this book in my course work 7 or 8 years ago and had thought then that Malouf, with his hero an Irish Catholic in the English Army in the mid 19th Century, had entirely airbrushed the ongoing English occupation of Ireland, and furthermore, that to the extent that the ostensible setting of the novel was outback Australia, there was only passing reference made to the Aboriginal inhabitants.
Comment in haste, repent at leisure would seem to be a good motto for the blogosphere, as elsewhere. So I thought I had better check my facts and then re-read both Conversations and, following Sue’s suggestion, the earlier Remembering Babylon.
Firstly, in a student essay on Myths, and referring to Conversations and to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I wrote:
The last, great myth, left unstated by both books, is the myth of Terra Nullius – that in 1788 all the land was claimed by Arthur Phillip for the Crown and that no other person was in possession of any part of it. Joseph Furphy’s Rigby typically refers to “this magnificent virgin continent” (Rigby’s Romance, p.111)
Malouf may be excused, he makes some of the right noises – the troopers are engaged “to police the colony and keep a watch on the western tribes” (p.7) and Jonas, the black tracker, gets to play a small part in the story; but what of Carey? In an area [north eastern Victoria] where there are still Aborigines living along the Goulburn and Murray Rivers, where Kingsley has Aborigines roaming the ranges, and Furphy has Aborigines on the Riverina plains, the land is Terra Nullius indeed. Not one Aboriginal camp follower or incidental character, not in the supporting cast nor in the background, just the six “murderous” black trackers brought down from Queensland by the police.
Clearly, my main beef was with Carey, but maybe I have since softened my opinions a little, at least in the case of Malouf’s representation of Aborigines. I think that Malouf makes it clear, as Carey does not, in both his novels set in outback 19th Century Australia that the whites are acting/settling in Aboriginal lands, but Malouf’s Aborigines are a presence rather than, or only rarely, individuals.
Further, Conversations is a novel about an Irishman, Adair, looking back from Australia to his growing up in Ireland, and almost only incidentally about his little band of troopers and the convict they have recaptured. Malouf makes it clear in the first few pages that in New South Wales Adair is operating in occupied territory and more or less leaves it at that.
In Remembering Babylon, Malouf tries something more ambitious in relation to describing Aboriginality. His central character, Gemmy, has spent so long living with Aborigines (in the 1840s in north Queensland) that his thinking has become Aboriginalised and Malouf attempts to describe for us how that might work. Again, there are not actually any Aborigines in this story. They are a presence, indeed they are the Enemy of which all this little white community is fearful, but they are not present as individuals.
The story of Remembering Babylon starts with Gemmy – who was in London a rat-catcher’s “boy” and then a sailors’ boy, before being abandoned on a north Queensland beach – finally emerging into a little farming community inland of Bowen, after sixteen years attached to a local tribe.
Unlike Buckley for instance, who lived from 1803-1835 with the Wathaurang on Port Philip Bay and then became an interpreter for the new settlement, Gemmy has retained very little English and is not trusted. Although he is given shelter by the family he first approached, the McIvors, he is treated by most of the community as a representative of the Blacks, a spy or a turncoat, and it is not clear that Gemmy doesn’t feel this way himself. At a fairly hostile town meeting, Gemmy mimes and splutters an account of his experiences, which are taken down by Frazer, the vicar, and Abbott, the schoolteacher.
From the beginning there were those among them, Ned Corcoran was the most vehement, for whom the only way of dealing with blacks was the one that had been given scope elsewhere. ‘We ought to go out,’ he insisted, controlling the spit that flooded his mouth, ‘and get rid of ‘em once and for all. If I catch one of the buggers round my place, I’ll fuckin’ pot ‘im.’
So [Gemmy] hummed and harred and chewed his tobacco, and when he was forced to speak at last, put them off with answers which, by shifting a landmark and counting a few dead in with the living, set his people further north than they actually were and made them more numerous. He felt a heavy responsibility.
Gemmy settles down at the McIvors’, living in a lean-to alongside their rudimentary hut, and helping out around the farm. One day he has two visitors from his old tribe. Malouf describes what he imagines is an Aboriginal, almost telepathic, meeting of minds:
When all the proper formalities had been exchanged, and the necessary questions asked and answered, the silence became a conversation of another kind; and the space between them, three feet of baked earth where ants in their other life scurried about carrying bits of bark and other broken stuff in the excited scent of a new and foreign presence, expanded and became the tract of land up there under the flight of air and the stars of the night sky, that was the tribe’s home territory, with its pools and creeks and underground sources of water, its rock ridges and scrub, its edible fruits and berries and flocks of birds and other creatures, all alive in their names and the stories that contained their spirit, for a man to walk into and print with the spirit of his feet and the invisible impact of his breath.
Here, and later when he’s discussing “women’s business” in relation to Gemmy helping Frazer categorize edible plants, I think Malouf gets very close to the “boundary” of what a white man can reasonably say about Aboriginal business.
Malouf is a poet and a fine writer but I found this novel unsatisfactory for other reasons too. There is no one central character and the point of view jumps around, from Gemmy, to the school master, to the vicar, to Mr, Mrs and young Lachlan McIvor, to the neighbour’s hired hand, and so on. We don’t really get to sympathise with any of them, and character development is consequently patchy, good while it’s occurring, but then we move on to someone else. Likewise, just when you are getting settled, more characters are added in, until it’s all rather crowded for what is a fairly short book. Then finally, there is an entirely gratuitous epilogue, 60 years later, which contributes nothing to Gemmy’s story at all.
And what happens to Gemmy? After the meeting with the tribesmen is disclosed he is roughed up, is moved to another property where he is more out of the way and finally, it seems, drifts back to the bush, to his adopted people.
David Malouf, Remembering Babylon, Random House, Sydney, 1993
David Malouf, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, Random House, Sydney, 1996