BOOK REVIEW / A fear of flying axes: 'Remembering Babylon' - David Malouf: Chatto & Windus, 14.99 pounds

D. J. Taylor
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:12

IT IS A mark of Remembering Babylon's resonance that it should send all manner of potent images crawling up from the moss of exported Australian culture to settle in the reader's mind. Predictably enough, perhaps, the sharpest of these comes only indirectly from literature. When Gemmy, the former cabin-boy who has spent 16 years in the company of an Aboriginal tribe, careers out of the bush to confront a gaggle of startled children, the scene is oddly reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg's film of the James Vance Marshall novel Walkabout. Though the settings are more than a century apart - Malouf's territory is north Queensland in the 1850s - the effect is the same: the wide-eyed onlookers, the puzzled, tractable apparition ('a shape more like a watery, heat-struck mirage than a thing of substance'), the hint of menace and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Encounters of this sort, whether in literature or film, carry an almost tangible symbolism. Malouf's symbol for this new and inchoate landscape, or rather a very old landscape in the process of radical transformation, is the man who uncomprehendingly bestrides two cultures and is torn apart by conflicting allegiances. In Gemmy's case, these are no more than dimly perceived instincts. Knowing only a few words of fractured English ('Do not shoot,' he cries, mistaking 12- year-old Lachlan's raised stick for a shotgun, 'I am a British object'), he moves towards this frail new civilisation in pursuit of 'the creature, the spirit or whatever it was, that lived in the dark of him . . .'

Gemmy's apparent centrality is only one of the novel's many easy deceptions. His importance, it transpires, lies in his effect on the small circle of settlers with whom he comes into contact. The early chapters, consequently, can be read as a parable of racial identity. Taken in by the McIvor family - Lachlan, his uncle, aunt and their two daughters - pronounced harmless and set to work at household chores, Gemmy swiftly becomes an object of suspicion. Leaving aside the characteristic settler fear of flying axes, his presence is a sharp reminder of much that these interlopers would prefer to forget: the transience of their hold on these newly acquired possessions; a primeval past in which they and Gemmy meet as equals; a frightening linguistic impasse. His reversion to barbarous, native speech is, as Malouf puts it, 'provocation, a way of making them helpless'.

The settler community gradually becomes inflamed by fear and rumour - exacerbated by the sight of Gemmy conversing with two Aboriginal visitors. But the reader who expects Remembering Babylon to end in a riot of anti-colonial savagery will be sadly disappointed. Gemmy becomes a progressively more marginalised figure - eventually he disappears altogether - a catalyst whose presence causes other people to reappraise their own lives. In this way, too, the racial identity trail peters out into dust and scrub. Gemmy's observers, the McIvors, Abbot the schoolmaster, Mr Frazer, the minister, the eccentric bee-keeping Mrs Hutchence, with whom he is finally sent to lodge are in search of narrower goals. Like Gemmy, each has his or her 'creature', endlessly pursued and invariably hanging a little way out of reach.

This feeling of a series of epiphanies, or moments of selfrealisation, is confirmed midway through the book, when the narrative finally settles on Lachlan's cousin Janet as the central character. Out among Mrs Hutchence's hives and suddenly covered by a swarm of bees, Janet experiences a moment of intense spiritual elevation. The novel ends half a century later during the First World War, with Janet as a member of a religious order and Lachlan a government minister who is drawn back to his cousin after a scandal over some letters she had written to a German apiarist.

Remembering Babylon defies easy summary. Gemmy is no more than a vehicle (his presumed death in a raid on Aboriginal settlement is mentioned almost in parenthesis); the moments of personal revelation are glowing yet unconnected. For all its absorption in mental re-appraisal, the novel's enduring focus lies elsewhere, in landscape. Thus Mr Frazer, out botanising with Gemmy in the bush, is 'a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again'. In the end the novel's characters seem somehow less important than their milieu; scurrying, vagrant humanity adrift in a world of echoing space and silence.

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