Remembering Babylon, David Malouf

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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

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11 thoughts on “Remembering Babylon, David Malouf

  1. Whew, glad my love of Conversations can remain without too much guilt, then! You write that “but Malouf’s Aborigines are a presence rather than, or only rarely, individuals.” I think that’s acceptable – firstly there’s that ongoing debate about white writers writing black characters, but there’s also the point that Malouf is exploring something different which is the experiences of these two men and what their migration had meant/done to them. (At least, this is how I recollect it).

    In Babylon he does try to write these characters a little which, personally, I think is a valid thing to do – in fact!!

    For some reason I remember Babylon less, although it is the prizewinner of the two as I recollect. I do recollect that my book group’s discussion was pretty intense (in a positive way, I might add). I’ve often thought I’d like to read it again.

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    • Certainly they are both worth re-reading, it’s just a question of how high is your TBR! I have spent the last couple of days immersed in academic works on Aboriginal writing, which will emerge as a post soon-ish, so my opinions are in a state of flux. In this context I would like to get hold of some Rosa Praed, particularly Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land. Did you say one time that this was available as an e-book?

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      • Yes, I know and I’m torn but would probably read another of his, before I reread these. How I wish I could carve more time for reading – but then, perhaps, I’d miss out on all the other things I do!!

        Yes, the Praed is available as an e-version from Project Gutenberg Australia: http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-n-z.html#letterP

        There’s an Australian author working on a biography of her. Can’t wait to see that come out though it’s probably still years away. I’m not sure when she’ll finalise it.

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    • I’ve downloaded Rosa Praed thanks, my first e-book! Using an e-pub add-on with Firefox, seems ok, tho psych daughter is critical. I do so much reading on the internet anyway, this doesn’t seem any different.

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      • WG: I covered Praed’s The Bond of Wedlock during my degree. one of her London stories. Lady Bridget begins in Australia and should address her experience of the Fraser massacre in 1857. I also downloaded an Ada Cambridge, one of three available think

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  2. Ha ha, “comment in haste, repent at leisure” could be my motto too… I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve written a long and forthright comment on a blog and then deleted it in its entirety and written something brief and bland instead. These days I read some blog posts and decide to ‘keep out of it’ i.e. keep my opinions to myself altogether. Because, online, one can spend an awful lot of otherwise valuable time defending turf in an argument that one doesn’t really care about anyway. Rarely does it lead to a thoughtful reappraisal of ideas such as you’ve written about here!

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    • Well thankyou for “thoughtful reappraisal”. Commenting is fun, but I do sometimes overstate my case! The other/opposite problem I have is that quite often I will enjoy a post, and even be quite involved in the argument it makes, but will feel that it is out of ‘my area’ or I have nothing to add, and yet I feel somehow it is disrespectful to say nothing.

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      • Yup, I feel like that too. We who blog know how lonesome it is when there’s no response to a blogpost, and so we do try to keep up, join in, contribute, but sometimes it just can’t be done.

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  3. Thankyou Lisa, and Sue, I greatly appreciate that you read and comment on my work. Of course I will continue making comments on yours as they come to me – and will remind myself from time to time as I have had to do throughout my adult life: Stop Shouting!

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