More and more now he was haunted by those sheets, seven in all, he had not forgotten the number, that Mr Frazer had folded and put into his pocket, and which he had never seen again; till he was convinced that the only way to save himself from so much racking, and despair and sweat, was to get them back again.David Malouf, Remembering Babylon, pp. 154-155
Remembering Babylon tells the tragic and compelling story of Gemmy Fairley, a white man who, after sixteen years with the aborigines, finds his whiteness as unsettling among the hostilities of a pioneer community as the knowledge he brings with him of the aboriginal world.
First published in 1993, Remembering Babylon was short-listed for both the Miles Franklin and Booker Literary prizes and won the inaugural International Dublin Literary Award. David Malouf is considered to be one of Australia’s finest writers, so it is quite remiss of me to have taken so long to read one of his novels. But it certainly won’t be the last.
The story is set during the middle of the 19th century in a small settlement near Bowen in QLD. The white settlers have endured a long journey to the other side of the world for a chance for a new life, space and sunlight, and bringing little with them in terms of home comforts except the knowledge they have about the world and their place in it. Considering themselves progressive and civilised, the wildness of the Australian landscape and its native people is a threatening presence. With regards to Australia’s Indigenous people, the settlers fall into two camps. There are those who advocate for getting “rid of them once and for all” and there are those who see the Aborigines as potential labourers and domestic servants. Either way it is clear there is a “difference between us and them.” Until Gemmy Fairley stumbles into their community.
Gemmy has had a tragic life. Growing up on the streets, he has been used and abused, learning only as much language as was necessary to meet his immediate needs. As young as five he was sweeping the floors of the timber mill before being taken up by Willett the rat-catcher, whose shreds of care was the only tenderness Gemmy had ever experienced in his life. After one beating too many, Gemmy sets fire to the room and absconds, falling asleep on a ship at the docks and wakes to a life at sea. But when he is burning with a fever and too sick to care what happens next, he is callously thrown overboard and washes up on the Australian shore. Attaching himself to an Aboriginal tribe, he is initially shocked at the wildness of this new world, but soon realises that it is “no different in essence to his previous one.”
Gemmy’s presence threatens the settlers. At first he is taken for an Aborigine, with his “stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints” and “leathery face scorched black” until he manages to utter his first English words in many years: “I am a B-b-british object!” Given the way Gemmy has been treated, “kicked from one side of the world to the other,” object is an apt label. As he struggles to remember enough English language to tell his story, the settlers are horrified to realise that this pitiful creature “had started out white…When he fell in with the blacks – at thirteen,..he had been like any other child.” But the question that really shakes them to the core: Is he still white? “Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It.” Whiteness, that is. It challenges their sense of cultural superiority and the idea of a clear distinction between black and white.
For some settlers, Gemmy arouses suspicion. Their attempt to settle the country has pitted them in a war against the native inhabitants. After all those years living with the “enemy”, could Gemmy’s loyalty be assured? Was he really a spy working in league with the blacks? When Gemmy is spotted in conversation with two black men, some of the settlers are outraged at the way the “two blacks had walked in, just like that, as if they owned the place, then walked out again.” Bit ironic really, given the same could be said about them. But this was the concept of terra nullius, that until they had arrived, “no other lives had been lived here.” The conflict between black and white means the settlers are on constant edge, fearing a native attack at any moment. Malouf weaves the true life massacre at Comet River into the settlers consciousness, an event that unleashed the Frontier War in Queensland and cost thousands of Indigenous lives.
One of the most interesting themes of the novel is the relationship between language and identity. Gemmy never had a great English vocabulary to start with, but as the words slowly slip away, so does his hold on his old life. Without the words, there is nothing to connect him to his former self. “Occasionally some object out of his old life would come floating back…but no word was connected…and…the object too went thin on him.” His former self became a creature “that lived in the dark of him,” teasing and haunting him, but too slippery to grasp. Gemmy sees the settlement as a chance to “put the words back in his mouth, (to) catch the creature” and remember the person he used to be. I couldn’t help relating Gemmy’s loss of language and identity to the loss of language, culture and identity imposed upon Australia’s indigenous people. Forbidden to use their language, removed from their traditional lands, and prevented from practising their traditional way of life had a traumatic impact on their culture, way of life, relationships and identity. As Gemmy discovered, sometimes there are no English words to describe and express aspects of traditional indigenous life. Without the words, many things have been lost forever.
While Remembering Babylon was thought provoking, the absence of clearly designated Indigenous characters and the depictions of Indigenous thought through the eyes of Gemmy, a white man, is a little uncomfortable in these times. Australia’s First People are present as a threat that looms invisibly over the white settlers and yet at the same time, they are not present. Hopefully readers will be encouraged to seek out the other side of the story too.