Remembering Babylon, David Malouf
One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary. (from page 1)
And so the story begins…
The creature, almost upon them now…came to a halt, gave a kind of squawk, and leaping up onto the top rail of the fence, hung there, its arms outflung as if preparing for flight. Then the ragged mouth gapped. “Do not shoot,” it shouted “I am a B-b-british object!” (from page 3)
The “creature” is a white man (Gemmy) who had washed up on the Australian northern shore as a boy, and for 16 years lived among the aborigines who discovered him—these words are the first words of English he had spoken in many years, much of his native language has been lost from the lack of use. The white settlers who Gemmy subsequently found—he sought them out based on stories that he heard from the natives he lived with—reacted to his ‘being’ with natural suspicion. Naturally, the settlers wanted to know his origins, one question that was raised at the time of their initial scrutiny of this creature: Is he even a ‘white man’ anymore? Another question of greatest importance simmered in their minds: Could he be trusted? Would his staying on at the settlement cause the blacks (as the aboriginal people were referred to by the settlers) to raid their farms and do God knows what? The McIvor family who took in Gemmy out of kindness then became subject to the a suspicion—and of course, Gemmy falls victim to abuse because of incidents real or imagined and the McIvor’s receive their ‘punishment’ from their neighbors as well—and so it goes, a chronic story of persecution that has occurred for centuries from one society to another…
This book is written with tenderness—it is simply beautiful—quiet and intense, very much like ‘being there’—
A day of bushfires, brassy sky; the air stilled, smelling of char. Fine ash falling, as if the sun at last had burnt itself out and the last flakes of it were descending to cover the earth. It did not surprise him. He too felt burnt out, his skull a husk, paper-thin and rattling as he walked. He felt, as he followed the white ribbon that led to the settlement, that he had lost all weight in the world; his feet made so little impression in the dust that it was as if he had not passed, or had passed through into another being and no longer shared—with the powdery dust under his feet, the rocks, the trees along the way where he paused a moment to rest, and settling his palm against a tree trunk, felt the sap streaming up from where the giant tree was rooted—the hold these things had on the earth.” (from page 176)
I’ve found yet another precious gem—detailing a history, a way of life or the raw, hard-scrabble attempt to create one with what you have available, and the way people communicate or simply can’t because of differences—differences terrify humans—if they ain’t like us, they must be up to no good—clearly, they ain’t right. Clearly. I could just about scream my eyeballs out sometimes because this ignorance and suspicion is so petty and disturbing—it seems so unnecessary to cause such torment from distrustful fabrications, but that’s what people do—they do it to ‘protect their own from the other’ and it’s something so ingrained in our nature I fear we can never shake it off even if we browbeat our children with diversity training in school and attempt to lead by example at home. Fear of ‘the other’ is wound around our sense of self-preservation, it is a tough strand to disentangle from our DNA no matter how enlightened we are—there will always be that nagging little itch of what if looking over the shoulder of the unsettled mind.
I discovered David Malouf on a bookstore sale table many years ago, the music of his words in The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) enchanted me and ever since, I have meant to read more by him, and finally, I’ve returned to his stories about Australia and look forward to filling my library with more books by this author.