Saturday, July 3, 2010

Babylon Down Under

David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) is the first novel I've read by this Australian writer, but it won't be the last (there is quite a buzz around his latest, The Great World, so that will go in the Stack). Malouf, who has published eight novels, is also a working poet and his prose is interesting, original and stylish without feeling overwritten. For a reader already impressed with the quality of contemporary Australian literature discovering Malouf is not a revelation, just a confirmation of the great vitality of the Australian literary stage. He is certainly squarely in this tradition, focused on the confrontation with nature and the Other, and on the experience of displacement and violence, that are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Australian literature and cinema.

Remembering Babylon
is the story of Gemmy Fairley, the lowest of the low of London street urchins, accidentally set to sea and then marooned at the age of thirteen to spend sixteen years living with the aborigines whose language and way of life he adopts. The novel concentrates on his experience after stumbling out of the bush and taking up life with Scottish settlers in a remote highland area of Queensland. Gemmy is something of an idiot savant, damaged from a life of suffering but possessed of rare knowledge, kind and gentle but an inevitably disruptive presence.

In fact Malouf's real interest is in the Scottish settlers and their responses to Gemmy as a symbol, or really an incarnation, of the outback. The tension builds as settlers polarize into those who would launch genocidal attacks on the "blacks" and those who, to say as much as can be said, wouldn't. The situation is a familiar one and the reader is engaged by the drift towards a violent climax, but Malouf is a serious artist and artfully defies the expectations he has invited.

I should mention the treatment of the bee dance as analogy: the apiary-keepers know that the bees must communicate information somehow, but they don't know how the bees do it. Aborigines (excuse me, I have no personal experience of Australia and confess I don't know if "aborigine" is a term in acceptable political form) have ancient systems for learning about places, a product of long history traversing large areas (there is a good discussion of this in Bruce Chatwin's Songlines). Gemmy has some insight into aboriginal sense of place, but it is so alien to the Scottish, who come from an urban environment of coal mines and tenements, as to be quite literally invisible to them (just as Gemmy makes them disappear, for him, by ignoring them). I liked the way Malouf revealed just enough of this: like a blues guitarist who only plays a few, well-expressed notes.

Malouf is a first-class writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.

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