Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

I first read Remembering Babylon as part of a Romantic literature course at university in Melbourne about six years ago. Earlier this year an American friend living in Cambodia passed me a copy of David Malouf’s evocative novel. There was something really nice about revisiting Remembering Babylon in this way; in Southeast Asia – a place so removed from nineteenth century Australia – where I often feel my difference from the culture around me. While re-reading Remembering Babylon far from the university classroom the themes of language and crossing cultural and geographical boundaries stood out for me, and Malouf’s detailed and lovely descriptions of the Australian bush were a welcome reminder of home.

Remembering Babylon begins when three children of European settlers (and a dog) happen upon Gemmy Fairley in 1840s Queensland. Perched atop a fencepost in fear (one of the children, a boy named Lachlan, is pretending to hold a gun) Gemmy cries out: “Do not shoot … I am a B-b-british object!” (These words were apparently really spoken by a man named Gemmy Morrill/Morrell, although the rest of Malouf’s novel is fiction). When he was thirteen, Gemmy – then a British cabin boy – was cast overboard and washed ashore in northern Australia, where he was taken in by Aborigines. For sixteen years he lives in the bush before hearing of the settlers and venturing close to their community. Gemmy is accepted into the town and moves in with the McIvors (the family of the three children who first discovered him). People are suspicious of Gemmy because of his connections with the bush and the Aborigines, parts of Australia that the settlers are largely unable to understand and are consequently fearful of.

Remembering Babylon is beautifully written; poetic in parts and infused with just enough magical realism to make it enchanting without being unbelievable. The most memorable descriptions in the novel for me are those of the bush, and Gemmy’s relationship to it:

What kept you alive here was the one and the other, and they were inseparable: the creature with its pale ears raised and stiffened, sitting up alert in its life as you were in yours, and its name on your tongue. When it kicked its feet and gushed blood it did not go out of the world but had its life now in you, and could go in and out of your mouth forever, breath on breath, and was not lost, any more than the water you stooped to drink would cease to run because you gulped it down in greedy mouthfuls, then pissed it out.

Language is a strong theme in Remembering Babylon. Gemmy quickly learns the language of the Aborigines, and feels the words of his boyhood slowly fading: “He lost his old language in the new one that came to his lips.” Part of the reason the settlers find Gemmy so unsettling is his ability to converse with the Aborigines in their tongue. We make so many of our connections through conversation, so when conversing is impossible we feel lost and isolated. The title of the novel speaks to this theme in multiple ways: Babylon was an ancient place of exile, the edge of society, much like Australia was for those first immigrants from England. Babylon is also thought to have been home to the Tower of Babel, where – so the Bible story goes – God first created different languages and threw the world into confusion. And though Remembering Babylon is written in one language it comes from multiple perspectives: Gemmy, the members of the McIvor family, the town schoolmaster and minister, and many others. The result is a telling of events that includes a multitude of interpretations, and makes us question the truth of a single view.

I found myself carried away by the lovely lilting tone of this novel, and was deeply immersed in the minds of its characters. Remembering Babylon is a profound and beautiful book.

Remembering Babylon was published in 1993, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Other novels by David Malouf include Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Fly Away Peter, and The Great World which won the Commonwealth Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger.

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