The Australian writer David Malouf is fascinated with the power of words, an obsession he shares with the characters in his books. At the opening of his second novel, An Imaginary Life (1978), the poet Ovid has arrived at a desolate edge of the Roman Empire, where he has been banished for tweaking the emperor’s nose once too often. His new home is a village of huts, pigs, and mud. No one reads Latin; no one can even understand what he is saying. He walks around ranting during the daytime, cut off from the essential working life of the village, and at night he writes letters, even when there is no one to read them:
I speak to you, reader, as one who lives in another century, since this is the letter I will never send….
Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known? Has some line of my writing escaped the banning of my books from all the libraries and their public burning, my expulsion from the Latin tongue? Has some secret admirer kept one of my poems and so preserved it, or committed it to memory? Do my lines still pass secretly somewhere from mouth to mouth? Has some phrase of mine slipped through as a quotation, unnoticed by the authorities, in another man’s poem? Or in a letter? Or in a saying that has become part of common speech and cannot now be eradicated?
Have I survived?
Malouf isn’t particularly interested in the circumstances surrounding Ovid’s censorship, nor does he seem to care very much about Ovid’s enduring literary fame. But here Ovid is like the desperate man on a desert island who puts a message in a bottle and throws it into the sea. The desire to be recognized and remembered is always close to the heart of Malouf’s work—whether he is writing about a prisoner of war in southeast Asia or a lonely Roman poet. And for these yearning characters, language often defines the boundaries of their imagined worlds. Malouf rescues their “utterances,” even when they are unspoken; he gives them room to grow, transplanted, in the reader’s mind.
At the same time, Malouf is distrustful of words that are divorced from visceral experience: these can foster enchantment and delusion. Ovid’s fortunes improve only after he abandons his sterile self-imprisonment in Latin and learns the language of the place where he now lives. A feral boy is then discovered in the woods, and the poet teaches him to speak; this linguistic challenge is what binds Ovid anew to the present. It therefore seems appropriate that Malouf’s own heady concerns, which pleasingly resurface in book after book, are increasingly fused with the immediate and the particular. In his new novel about nineteenth-century Australia, Remembering Babylon, almost every idea seems lovingly fleshed out, just as the most commonplace object or gesture—a teacup, the slicing of an apple—is alive with meaning.
Remembering Babylon begins in a remote Queensland community in the 1850s, and the farming families who live there—the transplanted McIvors and Corcorans and Sweetmans who’ve abandoned mine pits and black-smithies to stake their claim—are unsure whether the new world will be their salvation or their downfall. There is no name yet for the dusty track that runs by the general store, no road attaching their settlement to the others along the coast. The newcomers have barely made a scratch on the vastness that surrounds them:
It was disturbing, that: to have unknown country behind you as well as in front. When the hissing of the lamp died out the hut sank into silence. A child’s murmuring out of sleep might keep it human for a moment, or a rustling of straw; but what you were left with when the last sleeper settled was the illimitable night, where it lay close over the land. You lay listening to the crash of animals through its underbrush, the crack, like a snapped bone, of a ringbarked tree out in a paddock, then its muffled fall; or some other, unidentificable sound, louder, further off, that was an event in the land’s history, no part of yours. The sense then of being submerged, of being hidden away in the depths of the country, but also lost, was very strong.
The massacres of the Australian aborigines are hinted at throughout Remembering Babylon, yet Malouf makes ready-made twentieth-century judgments about this historical catastrophe seem embarrassingly glib. Just as Pat Barker’s recent novel Regeneration demands a strenuous moral reevaluation of the First World War by entangling the reader in Siegfried Sassoon’s decision to resign from the army, Malouf forces you to experience not only the colonists’ hatred, but also the fear that fosters it. The terrors engendered by this new land of upside-down seasons and wide skies seem almost equal to its opportunities. Cyclones. Floods. Natives who can come up on you without a sound, who refuse to recognize the authority of a fence. Jock McIvor dreams of snow, and his wife tells their children the stories of her own growing-up over and over. The faded dress with its pattern of larkspurs; the schoolmaster’s slim French volumes, with their heroines named Ursule or Victorine: these are the settlers’ talismans against the unknown, for Australia speaks a language that they do not understand.
It is out of this unfathomed, unfathomable territory that Gemmy Fairley emerges. On the blisteringly hot morning when the McIvor children first catch sight of him coming out of the swamp, they are already involved in a rather energetic game of make-believe—tracking wolves across the snowy forests of Russia—and at first they are mystified by what the creature bobbing awkwardly toward them is:
The stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints, suggested a wounded waterbird, a brolga, or a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another, all spells and curses, had been changed into a bird, but only halfway…
The children are frightened, but also utterly transfixed. Is he a scarecrow? Is he a black? By rights he should be a black, jumping out of the wilderness and running toward them in this eerie, incomprehensible way. But his hair is a shock of blond against his darkened skin. Lachlan, the boy, steps forward and gestures threateningly with his stick as though it were a gun. The creature squawks with alarm and leaps to the top rail of the fence. There, teetering, it stutters to justify its existence before being annihilated by the boy’s imaginary weapon:
” ‘Do not shoot,’ it shouted. ‘I am a B-b-british object!’ ”
After this astonishing statement. Gemmy falls off the fence and allows Lachlan to lead him back to the settlement, where he is considered quite a wondrous find.
Like Ovid, Gemmy is an outsider and an outcast, but of a far more ordinary sort: a white man, yes, but even so, a British object of little value—factory “maggot,” rat-catcher’s urchin—always defined by his usefulness to others. Sixteen years before, after a miserable stint as a much-abused ship’s boy, Gemmy had been unceremoniously dumped overboard while he was sick with fever. Rescued by the aborigines, he has lived among them ever since.
Gemmy’s years in Australia have not been unhappy ones, but he is haunted by a sense of his life before, a life that he can no longer remember. He lies by the aborigines’ campfire at night and mysterious images come, unbidden, into his mind. Unsurprisingly, they are often contained in a word, like the seed locked in a fruit: ” ‘Boots’ the darkness whispered—he caught only the breath of the word—and there they were: objects that made no sense here, that he saw propped up in front of a barred grate.”
So when Gemmy learns that there are white-faced creatures living to the south, he goes to seek them out, knowing that he needs their language to coax out this other spirit that lives inside him and troubles his dreams. Soon he comes upon a man in a clearing, who is preparing to swing “a longhandled, bladed instrument.” Gemmy watches from his hiding place:
He was amazed. A kind of meaning clung to the image in the same way that the clothes he was wearing clung to the man, and when the blade flashed and jarred against wood, it struck home in him. Axe.
The word flew into his head as fast and clear as the flash and whistle of its breath. Axe. Axe. Circles of meaning rippled away from the mark it blazed in the dark of his skull.
Gemmy is not escaping his present life, but attempting to reclaim his past, and as he circles the white community, observing, exploring, the language is as palpable to him as the chicken feed he shoves into his mouth and the clothes dancing on the line in the yard. The next day, when he runs toward the children, he wants to prove that “all that separated him from them was ground that could be covered.”
Because the boy, Lachlan, feels that he discovered Gemmy, the McIvors agree to take him in. But, in a larger sense, the settlers can’t seem to take him in; they find his presence among them strangely unnerving. What can it mean that, despite his lack of modesty, his goofy mannerisms, his humiliating desire to please, he is one of them?
He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks—at thirteen, was it?—he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?…Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It.
The day following Gemmy’s arrival, Mr. Frazer, the minister, brings Gemmy to the schoolhouse to examine him, instructing the schoolmaster, George Abbot, to take down his story. This dictation proves to be somewhat of a farce. Young Lachlan is Gemmy’s best interpreter, but he is so rambunctious that he is finally banished from the schoolroom, leaving Gemmy in Mr. Frazer’s well-meaning but far less capable hands. (Gemmy, anxious to be agreeable, eagerly accepts any interpretation Mr. Frazer offers, while Lachlan looks on, contemptuously, from the window.) Meanwhile Abbot, who is scornful of what he sees as the minister’s gullibility, begins introducing fanciful elements of his own into the record. By the time Gemmy has finished, any sense that this is an accurate transcription of his experience—and whether, by implication, any such transcription is accurate—has been seriously compromised.
The irony of this scene—which is at once comical, moving, and strangely upsetting—is less that Gemmy’s life history, despite being elicited and recorded, is riddled with error than that for Gemmy the solemnity of the enterprise is completely authentic. “Magic, as Gemmy understood it, had been the essence of the occasion.” He examines the ink-marked pages with reverence:
He knew what writing was but had never himself learned the trick of it. As he handled the sheets and turned them this way and that, and caught the peculiar smell they gave off, his whole life was in his throat—tears, laughter too, a little—and he was filled with an immense gratitude. He had shown them what he was. He was known.
Like Ovid writing to his future readers, like Janet McIvor hunched over her needlework “as if her life was in every stitch,” Gemmy possesses an intense desire to be pressed into the fabric of the world in some way that is both eternal and tangible. In one sense, Gemmy is distorted and diminished by this cobbled-together transcription, yet he is also exalted by the significance of its very existence. This contradiction is what prevents the scene from feeling narrowly moralistic. And is the illiterate Gemmy’s assessment of the wonders of writing so different from the awe that all readers periodically experience throughout their lives?
It did not surprise him—it was the nature of magic—that all that had happened to him, all his fortune good and bad, and so much sweat and pain, and miles travelled and bones picked and nights of freezing dew, and dreams, and dreams…should be reduced now to what a man could hold in his hand and slip into a pocket.
It is not only Gemmy who achieves a new self-consciousness: his very presence forces a new self-consciousness upon the colonists, and many of them find it an unwelcome one. The way he speaks English is especially galling:
He was a parody of a white man. If you gave him a word for a thing, he could, after a good deal of huffing and blowing, repeat it, but the next time round you had to teach it to him all over again. He was imitation gone wrong, and the mere sight of it put you wrong too, made the whole business somehow foolish and open to doubt.
How do the McIvors put up with it? Slowly, inevitably, Gemmy’s presence precipitates a reshuffling of loyalties. Old friendships are strained, new alliances spring up where none had previously existed. Malouf is particularly good at suggesting the profound disturbances and realignments that can occur within one person without being detected or remarked upon by others: the sudden terror of a despised farmhand; the fresh jealousy of a child. These assorted settlers, no less than Gemmy, have their own secret histories, and the brief glimpses Malouf offers us of their inner lives have the quality of revelation.
Although these harsh, hot landscapes of the Australian frontier are a hemisphere away from the Cornish coast and the florists of Bond Street, the loneliness of Malouf’s characters is surprisingly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf; each one seems caught in an intricate prison of particularity. In Remembering Babylon, everyone important—Gemmy, Lachlan, Mr. Frazer, the schoolmaster, the various McIvors—is also very isolated, even when in the company of others. But their alienation is punctuated by brief moments of connectedness, like Mrs. Dalloway’s sudden and clamorous happiness on a city street—“in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” Both writers celebrate that fragile and joyous sense of oneself in the world. In Woolf these moments are unearned. For Malouf’s characters, though, they have a moral dimension; they are a form of blessing, and one must be ready to receive it.
In Remembering Babylon, Mr. Frazer is the only adult who sees that he can learn something from Gemmy, and they often go on field trips together—“to botanise,” as Mr. Frazer calls it—in the surrounding countryside. Gemmy shows the minister the edible plants and vegetables, making him taste the scavenged tuber or berry, teaching him to sound out their strange names. Mr. Frazer jots them down phonetically in his notebook and then, to his companion’s amazement, sketches the plant itself, bringing it to life again on the page. This is a quintessentially Maloufian exchange: it is almost as though—through Gemmy’s language—the earth meets Mr. Frazer’s enthusiastic curiosity with a corresponding eagerness to be known. Just as words in Malouf are always pressing against their limitations as mere words—he describes them as whistling, blazing, darkening a room—the natural world seems to respond to the human desire to perceive it, as though thrilling to a touch.
One suspects that it is the minister’s lack of popularity in his profession that has brought him to this forsaken outpost, where he can’t even supply his wife with a piano. But after spending time with Gemmy, Mr. Frazer’s own ruminations on Australia take a visionary turn. At night, he takes out his notebooks and lets his imagination run wild with all he has learned. He marvels to think that early settlers starved to death in the midst of such abundance, unable, “with their English eyes,” to recognize it:
We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there….Is there not a kind of refractory pride in it, an insistence that if the land will not present itself to us in terms that we know, we would rather die than take it as it is? For there is a truth here and it is this: that no continent lies outside God’s bounty and his intention to provide for his children. He is a gardener and everything he makes is a garden.
Just as Mr. Frazer helps Gemmy translate his life into English, Gemmy in turn helps translate the landscape of Australia into something comprehensible. Mr. Frazer learns, by defining the particular, to redefine the whole, and in so doing he finds himself transformed as well.
But while the minister fashions his paradise out of what he can see and feel and name, others in his flock are infusing more sinister mythologies with new life. Now, when Jock McIvor’s neighbors regularly gather on the hillside at the day’s end, they argue about the safety of allowing Gemmy to remain among them. And in the afternoons, the wives come to Ellen McIvor’s to do their darning: What, their hostess wonders bitterly, did they talk about before Gemmy’s arrival? Malouf captures perfectly the insidious, masturbatory tenor of their gossip:
Didn’t she find it hard sometimes to sit at the same table with him? Considering that he might be happier running about naked—goodness, remember that first day!—than in the shirts she washed for him. Oh and the trousers, of course! And eating grubs—imagine!—than potatoes and cold mutton. That is, if it wasn’t something worse. Their own grandfathers, so they say. And wasn’t she scared, just a little—well they knew she wasn’t but they would be, it was a wonder really how calm she was—of the time he spent with the children. The little girls, for instance….And did she really let him chop wood for her? Actually let him loose with an axe?
Here the whites wield the word “axe” as a sly justification for their own eventual violence; we’ve come a long way from Gemmy’s moment of recognition in the clearing. When some blacks from Gemmy’s tribe come to pay him a visit, they are sighted by a neighboring farmhand, and the news spreads through the settlement like contagion. Jock McIvor’s neighbors are restless; soon he finds an obscenity smeared in human excrement on the side of his shed, seething with greenflies. The writing, so to speak, is on the wall.
Or is it? As the question of Gemmy’s fate looms over the settlement, the reader waits for the event that will draw the principal characters together and test their moral mettle in some conclusive way. This inevitable climax never happens. Gemmy manages to tilt the story away from its predictable endings, and, finally, to give the reader the slip altogether, disappearing into the mysterious country that delivered him. He remains, for the time being, the subject of his own story, but we never hear the rest of it. Nor do we return to the settlement without him—the final section of the novel is about a reunion between Lachlan and Janet McIvor in another time and place altogether. Paradoxically, this narrative swerve makes Gemmy seem more real rather than less so. It is as though he has finally eluded even the manipulations of his creator.
This elusiveness is chronic in Malouf, and it may be one reason why he is not, after seven novels, better known in the United States. His endings often leave us hungry with questions, as if his world is merely an extension of our own—ragged, porous, burgeoning with unfinished stories. To hold onto this great world—to remember the names for all that will otherwise be lost, to find the words with which to grasp the present, to articulate one’s visions of the future—is an unceasing challenge. Perhaps Malouf, believes that to suggest otherwise, even in fiction, is a misguided deceit. Perhaps he refuses to fold Gemmy’s story up with some final flourish because it isn’t meant, finally, to be reduced to “what a man could hold in his hand and slip into a pocket.” Once so dispensed with, it might be easier to forget.
In Remembering Babylon, Gemmy desperately wants to be known, both to himself and to others. Although Malouf won’t answer the riddle of Gemmy’s life, he does answer Gemmy’s yearning for that life to be recognized. Malouf honors the desire for recognition in all of us. After all, the author does deliver Ovid’s mournful letter safely into our hands. And in response to the lonely man’s closing cry—“Have I survived?”—we can answer, “Yes. Yes.”