Home > 1990, 20th Century, Australian Literature, Malouf David, Novella > Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. (1994) French title: Je me souviens de Babylone.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf is set in Queensland, Australia in the early days of the European settlements in this territory.

When the book opens, three children, Janet and Meg McIvor and Lachlan Beattie meet with Gemmy when they are playing in the fields. Sixteen years before, when he [Gemmy] was not much older than Lachlan Beattie, he had been cast overboard from a passing ship and had been living since in the scrub country to the north with blacks. The children are afraid of him but recognize a bit of English in his words and bring him back to their parents.

Gemmy’s arrival disturbed two communities. Sixteen years ago, the Aborigines didn’t know what to make of him but took him in and he learnt to live among them. He learnt the language, the customs and managed to fit in. He became part of their history.

In time his coming among them became another tale they told and he would listen to it with a kind of wonder, as if what they were recounting had happened ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else. How, when they found him he had still been half-child, half-seacalf, his hair swarming with spirits in the shape of tiny phosphorescent crabs, his mouth stopped with coral; how, ash-pale and ghostly in his little white shirt, that long ago had rotted like a caul, he had risen up in the firelight and danced, and changed before their eyes from a sea-creature into a skinny human child.

At the time the book is set, his arrival disturbs the settlers. They don’t know don’t know how to place him. Bad enough if he was what he appeared to be, a poor savage, but if he was a white man it was horrible. And the nagging question is “Is he still white or has be become black by living with the natives?”. In their mind, being white has value in itself and losing your whiteness is losing your humanity. Gemmy’s condition is puzzling:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks – at thirteen, was it? – he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

The underlying question is: is he one of us? Can we welcome him in the community? Can we trust him? For them, you cannot be in-between. Either you’re white and with them and have no contact with the blacks, either you’re black and keep away from the settlers. Gemmy has almost forgotten his native language, which doesn’t help the communication with the settlers. The loss of the English language is also a source of distress for them:

Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It. For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?

All this questioning helps today’s reader to enter into the settler’s mindset. They were mostly ignorant and didn’t have the capacity to see the whole picture or even beyond their everyday life. Whiteness is valuable, a thing to hold on to, an identity. It reminded me of Toni Morrison’s take on otherness in The Origin of Others and how she explains that white non-wasp immigrants relied on the colour of their skin to fit in the American society.

The settlers in Australia see their self-worth validated by the colour of their skin and it also justifies their presence in this land. They are part of the European mindset of the time that thought that colonizing countries was bringing light and civilization to the locals.

It doesn’t occur to them that the Aborigines have their own culture and that it’s as worthy as theirs. Gemmy can speak the language of the Aboriginal community that took him in. The settlers see this as suspicious, not as a chance to have a middleman between them and the Aborigines. They don’t think that they have something to learn from them or that coexistence or cooperation is possible. The colour of their skin is different, cooperation is not a possibility. They could learn from Gemmy…

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.

…but they refuse to acknowledge the Aboriginal civilization, its value and its knowledge of the land. It would mean that they were equals and that’s not even a possibility.

They had secretly, some of them, a vision of plantations with black figures moving in rows down a field, a compound with neat whitewashed huts, a hallway, all polished wood, with an old grey-haired black saying ‘Yessir’, and preparing to pull off their boots (all this off in the future of course, maybe far off; for the moment they would not mention the boots since most of them did not have any).

Black skin is associated with slavery, with being inferior to white skin. It’s deeply rooted in their heads through their upbringing. Jock McIvor and his family take Gemmy in when he joins the settlement. Jock is able to see beyond Gemmy’s appearance. He doesn’t phrase it that way but he sees a human being before everything else. This state of mind will set him apart from the other farmers and will cause him trouble.

Malouf tries to show the settlers’ point of view with objectivity. Their existence in Queensland is uncertain. The settlement is not even a village.

Apart from their scattered holdings, the largest of which was forty acres, there was nothing to the settlement but a store and post office of unpainted weatherboard, with a verandah and a dog in front of it that was permanently asleep but if kicked would shift itself, walk five steps, then flop. Opposite the store was a corrugated iron shack, a shanty-pub, unlicensed as yet, with hitching posts and a hollowed log that served as a trough.

It’s far from what they knew in Europe. They left everything behind to take a chance in a foreign land, a place they knew nothing about. They came with nothing but tools and willpower. Malouf reminds us how hard it was for them.

You had to learn all over again how to deal with weather: drenching downpours when in moments all the topsoil you had exposed went liquid and all the dry little creek-beds in the vicinity ran wild; cyclones that could wrench whole trees up by their roots and send a shed too lightly anchored sailing clear through the air with all its corrugated iron sheets collapsing inward and slicing and singing in the wind. And all around, before and behind, worse than weather and the deepest night, natives, tribes of wandering myalls who, in their traipsing this way and that all over the map, were forever encroaching on boundaries that could be insisted on by daylight – a good shotgun saw to that – but in the dark hours, when you no longer stood there as a living marker with all the glow of the white man’s authority about you, reverted to being a creek-bed or ridge of granite like any other, and gave no indication that six hundred miles away, in the Lands Office in Brisbane, this bit of country had a name set against it on a numbered document, and a line drawn that was empowered with all the authority of the Law.

It doesn’t occur to them that they are stealing the natives’ land. They feel entitled to it. The idea that the sense of property is different for the Aborigines is totally foreign to them just as it was to the settlers in America when they took land from the Indians. We tend to forget how ignorant the settlers were.

I liked Remembering Babylon for the open questioning of the colonization of Australia. It reminds us how easy to judge when we look back on it with our modern eyes. It was wrong and the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples is a good thing. Beyond the colonization issue, Remembering Babylon addresses the issue of “otherness” that leads to racism. How does the colour of my skin affects my membership to the national community?

I admired Remembering Babylon for this and for the precise and poetic style of Malouf’s writing. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have because Malouf’s style was difficult for me. I also wished he had sticked to a unique thread of plot, the one exploring the effect of Gemmy’s presence in the community. I don’t think it was useful to tell about Gemmy’s past in Europe or about Janet’s interest in bees.

I would like to know how other readers felt about it, so feel free to comment. I’ll add that the covers of the book are tremendous and perfectly fit its content.

As a conclusion, I’ll leave you with this quote, which echoes with the discussion about agriculture that I had with Bill from The Australian Legend on my billet about There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette.

We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have brought with us, and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already.

  1. June 17, 2018 at 11:48 am

    It’s too long since I read this book, Emma, for me to make a serious comment, but I did like it. You’ve captured the questions it asks very well. Malouf’s writing is poetic and reflective rather than plot-driven. I’m afraid I can’t answer why he included those narrative threads because of the time since I read it.


    • June 17, 2018 at 5:46 pm

      I was quite disappointed when he abandoned the exploration of the community’s feelings and actions towards Gemmy and the McIvor.
      I still think it’s an important book that raises a lot of crucial questions in a few pages.

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 17, 2018 at 11:58 pm

        And it sounds like it holds up well 2 or 3 decades after writing.


  2. June 17, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Excellent review Emma. I read this when it first came out but I can’t remember a thing about it and now I’m itching to seek it out for a reread because I’m sure it will resonate more now…


    • June 17, 2018 at 5:47 pm

      It’s very short and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. I’m all for a rereading on your side. 🙂


  3. June 17, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of David Malouf whose is another of my many favorite Australian writers. My view of Remembering Babylon is more positive than yours.


    • June 17, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      I think my view is impacted by the hard time I had reading it because of the language.
      I’m wondering if there’s something in Australian English that doesn’t agree with me. I’m struggling with Peter Carey now. *sigh*


  4. June 18, 2018 at 2:02 am

    I was hoping that my Reading Journal would come to the rescue: I’ve just spent 10 minutes typing it into Goodreads, only to have my internet connection break and to lose it all. I’ll try again later on…


  5. June 20, 2018 at 4:56 am

    I held off commenting until I could make time to read my own review. Malouf is a poet and his work works to an extent as poetry – there is music in the words – as well as story telling. And I agree with you that the story itself is all over the place. I always enjoy your insights as an outsider looking in to Australia – especially in this case the allusions to settler experience and slavery elsewhere. Much of this book is Malouf using Gemmy to explore/imagine Indigenous ways of thinking. A task which these days is better done by Indigenous authors such as Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Marie Munkara and many others.

    I think your problem with Malouf and Carey is a good one – they are self-consciously literary and so are the most ‘difficult’ to read, you can graduate from them to Patrick White and thence to the pinnacle, Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life.


    • June 20, 2018 at 8:56 am

      Thanks for the comment, I feel better about my assessment of the book.
      I don’t think I want to graduate to other Australian writers for now. I abandoned the Carey and I need a break.
      Marcus Clarke was a challenge. Kim Scott in English was too much. Peter Carey is a challenge. David Malouf was a challenge. I’m over challenged, that’s why I went for choc-lit. But now I’m having a break with Bill Bryson.


  6. June 20, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    It sounds good but a bit sprawling. The theme is one I’ve occasionally seen in some US writing. People holding on to their racial identity as “whites” grimly and determinedly because their perceived superiority to the African-American population is pretty much all they have. I think Tobacco Road goes there if I recall correctly. Do you remember if it does?


    • June 23, 2018 at 9:35 pm

      I haven’t read Tobacco Road, Max, I can’t tell you.


  7. July 31, 2019 at 12:32 am

    You completed several good points there. I did a search on the topic and found mainly persons will go along with with your blog.


  1. January 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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