A few years back when The Dilettante was living in London I read an article by Neil Griffiths entitled ‘Top Ten Books about Outsiders’. Included on his list were some obvious choices – Salinger’s ubiquitous The Catcher in the Rye – with the model of adolescent angst: Holden Caulfield, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – which gives us two outsiders in Jane and Rochester, and The Stranger – or The Outsider – by Albert Camus. The list also included Colin Wilson’s aptly titled The Outsider, and books on Beethoven and Jackson Pollock. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf would sit comfortably on such an esteemed list. Set in the mid-1840’s, it is the story of Gemmy Fairley, a boy washed ashore on the north Queensland coast at the age of 13 who is found and raised by a local clan of Aboriginals for 16 years until he tries to re-enter a nascent white settlement. It is thus a story of a boy who is an outsider twice – first amongst the blacks, and then doubly-so when he enters the lives of the McIvor children: Janet and Meg and their cousin Lachlan who are the first to find him, cornering him atop a fence as their dog snaps at his alien heels. It is this image of Gemmy – tottering above them as if fixed in mid air that is set in the minds of the children, particularly the eldest Janet, an image to which she returns to later in life with Lachlan, as they look back on the time spent with Gemmy in their midst.
This intersection of black and white Australia is of course nothing new in Australian literary fiction. Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) comes to mind, particularly given its plot of a white woman, Ellen Roxburgh, the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Queensland, who is taken in by the local aboriginals who are also harbouring an escaped convict. Ellen eventually returns to the coastal fringe and re-enters white settlement, albeit much altered. More recently, we have had Kate Grenville’s much acclaimed The Secret River, and there are numerous other examples of the black-white ‘collision’. Remembering Babylon is a gem, short yet profound – a significant imagining of the ‘outsider’ in Australian terms.
Malouf’s prose is achingly beautiful throughout; his depiction of a variety of scenes, from rural Australian bush to the cobbled streets of London and a variety of social interactions, are detailed and pitch-perfect. There are moments of such lucid beauty that you wish the story never ends. Examples abound. The haunting description of Gemmy washed ashore into the world of the aboriginals at the age of thirteen is both raw and beautiful – the aboriginals encounter him as a mystery; in time, it is a tale they tell as if it were a dreamtime story and had happened “ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else. How, when they found him he had 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.” Yet despite him quickly attaching himself to the mob, they accept him “guardedly; in the droll, half-apprehensive way that is proper to an in-between creature.” He has to fight for things. His life is now defined by separation, and whilst he spends years with the aboriginals, we move quickly to the time he enters the white settlement, where he runs into the McIvor children’s company: “He was running to prove that all that separated him from them was the ground that could be covered. He gave no consideration to what might happen when he arrived.” The notion that ‘ground’ is all that separates Gemmy and the white settlers – or is all that separates any of us – is a painful irony, for there is always the ‘separation’ that exists between the members of a community and the outsiders who come into its midst, a separation that becomes all to clear to Gemmy with time.
We are soon witness to the white settlers’ fear of what Gemmy represents – the fear of being overrun by the blacks, for it had happened down at “Comet River – nineteen souls.” It is the fear of the bogeyman come to life; Gemmy’s smell and movement are, for the community, reminders of this threat. We see through their eyes their ‘horror’ of a face-to-face encounter with an aboriginal man, this ‘visible darkness’:
you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never get back.
And so Gemmy inhabits the space between two peoples, neither one nor the other:
It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace.
There is a split in views as to how to deal with the perceived threat – with many favouring killing the aboriginals, whilst others favour a ‘softer’ approach of assimilation in which they envision them becoming de-facto slaves tending their crops on their plantations. Gemmy quickly becomes aware of the hardline settlers’ real intentions – the hidden malice in their queries of him regarding his past life with the blacks, and gives them misleading information on the blacks’ numbers and whereabouts. Gemmy’s fear and guardedness only serves to confirm the suspicions of the white men. Even Mr Frazer, the settlement’s minister, whom Gemmy befriends and escorts on his ‘Botanising’ excursions, is held at arm’s-length. Gemmy shows him plants the aboriginals use for food which Mr Frazer neatly draws in his book, and whilst Gemmy sees the black men in the trees and acknowledges them and their ‘claim’ so they let the two men pass, he does not tell Mr Frazer of their presence. Malouf beautifully describes how the aboriginals would see these two white men: Gemmy would “have a clear light around him like the line that contained Mr Frazer’s drawings. It came from the energy set off where his spirit touched the spirits he was moving through” whereas “all they would see of Mr Frazer was what the land itself saw: a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone, as if, in the long history of the place, it was too slight to endure, or had never been.”
Gemmy finds his way into the hearts of the McIvors. He has been taken in by them, and sleeps in a lean-to set against their house. He is particularly close to the precocious Lachlan, who has grand schemes of future expeditions he will undertake in order to find Leichhardt’s bones, and how he would take Gemmy with him and insist on having both their names inscribed on any monument subsequently erected in his honour. But for Lachlan’s uncle – and the girls’ father – Jock McIvor, Gemmy’s presence is a fraught one. He comes under pressure from concerned neighbours; in their eyes he has begun to “lose that magic quality”. But outwardly he protects Gemmy: “Little defensive spikes and spurs appeared in him that surprised the others and increased a suspicion that they might somehow have been mistaken in him.” Jock feels this scrutiny acutely. His wife, Ellen, doesn’t escape either – the women with their afternoon darning sessions, “all barbed concern.” Did she “really let him chop wood for her? Actually let him lose with an axe?” Ellen feels enraged with their barbs, and yet, even for her: “there were nights, lying stiffly in the dark, hands clenched at her side, heart thumping, when she did not feel sure.” Doubts reign supreme.
Slowly, Gemmy becomes aware that he can no longer live in the settlement, even after moving in with Mrs Hutchence who lives on the road out of town. This is the setting for some wonderful scenes of afternoon tea with Mrs Hutchence, the school teacher Mr Abbot, the McIvor girls and Gemmy, Leona – who lives with Mrs Hutchence – and Hec Gosper, one of the villagers. The interplay between characters is superb. Mrs Hutchence also introduces Janet McIvor to the world of bees and beekeeping. We are witness to a beautiful scene of the bees from Janet’s point of view, and we see the bees as a metaphor for the aboriginals in a way too, for Mrs Hutchence and the hives “which looked so closed and quiet under the trees but were filled with such fierce activity – another life, quite independent of their human one, but organised, purposeful, and involving so many complex rituals. She loved the way, while you were dealing with them, you had to submit to their side of things”. Soon after, it is the sound of the bees and the making of honey which Malouf delightfully explores, culminating in the event that is the making of Janet.
Gemmy, though, living in a small room in Hutchence house, sees his separation grow larger. He is separated from Lachlan and the division between them grows. He feels his tale, which was dictated by Mr Frazer to Mr Abbot and written down on seven pieces of paper soon after he had arrived in the settlement, has begun to steal his spirit, and he sets out to find the pages again, to reclaim them and his spirit. It is here we are reminded of his separation once again, for the mean-spirited Mr Abbot gives him seven pieces of paper which have school-children’s scribbles on them rather than his own story. Being illiterate, Gemmy takes these with him into the bush thinking they are his story, where, in the first rain storm he soon encounters, the words upon them turn into wash and run off the page and they soon turn into pulp and dissolve in his hands, much as Gemmy has dissolved back into the bush himself.
The final chapter sees us transported years into the future, during the first world war, where the estranged Lachlan, now a minister in the government, and Janet, who has become a nun, are re-united because of a humorous scandal based on letters that Janet has sent a priest, written in the code of beekeeping which are misconstrued as the encoded work of a German spy. It is once again proof that a sense of misguided panic and ignorance pursues many human encounters, be they the intersection of black and white, or the keeping of bees. It is in this re-uniting that Lachlan and Janet recall the influence Gemmy has had on them. For Lachlan, who has spent many years working on the coastal highway, it was the long search for Gemmy, and how he decided on one of these explorations that he had found his bones alongside seven or eight others, victims of a ‘dispersal’ – “too slight an affair to be called a massacre” and one the newspapers didn’t pick up; but now he realises he can’t tie Gemmy up like a loose end, for he had “touched off in them … (something) they were still living”, and would end “only when they were ended, and maybe not even then.” For Janet, she is still fixated on the day that Gemmy first came to them, and the moment he had “hung there against the pulsing sky as if undecided as yet which way to move, upward in flight into the sun or, as some imbalance in its own body, its heart perhaps, drew it, or the earth, or the power of their gazing, downward to where they stood rooted”, and while he was up there on the fence, she realises that she has “never seen anyone clearer in all my life. All that he was. All.” It is this moment of Gemmy held against the sky that they will both return to: “and stand side by side looking up at the figure outlined there against a streaming sky. Still balanced. For a last moment held still by their gaze, their solemn and fearful attention, at the one clear point, till this last, where they were inextricably joined and would always be.”
For me, this is perhaps where the book could have ended, two pages from its actual end. It is my only ultra slight quibble and one that is eclipsed perhaps by Janet’s moving prayer on the final page where she asks: “Let none be left in the dark or out of mind, on this night, now, in this corner of the world or any other, at this hour, in the middle of this war…” for: “As we approach prayer. As we approach knowledge. As we approach one another.” It is a prayer we might all share in our reflection on the intersection of black and white, of the treatment of outsiders, a prayer that goes beyond our remote borders, one that travels to the heart of all divisions, and how we might overcome them.
One other point worth noting is the beautiful cover art on this Vintage Classics edition. It depicts, in a blue-porcelain-style ink, a scene of the established family of blue birds, the adults protecting their young, from a sole swooping orange-brown bird who, like Gemmy, is stuck their in mid-air, an outsider, attempting entry into a life once his that is now alien and unavailable. It is the perfect cover art for this story, delicate, thoughtful and poignant; it makes a mockery of the often glib approach assumed by other covers. Remembering Babylon is a book you want to hold in your hands and admire, literally, from cover to cover.
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
Vintage Classics (Australia)