Malouf, David (Vol. 86)
David Malouf Remembering Babylon
Award: Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction
(Full name George Joseph David Malouf) Born in 1934, Malouf is an Australian novelist, poet, short fiction writer, playwright, librettist, and editor.
For further information on Malouf's life and works, see CLC, Volume 28.
Updating the theme of the "noble savage," Remembering Babylon (1993) is set in nineteenth-century Australia and concerns Gemmy Fairley, an English citizen who was abandoned by shipmates as a child. After living with the aborigine people of Australia for a sixteen-year period, this "black white-feller" attempts to rejoin white Australian society, a community governed by European cultural norms and the English language. Variously regarded by some settlers as a curiosity, a potential ally against the aborigines, and an object of scientific wonder, Gemmy is also viewed with fear, loathing, and distrust. His reinitiation into white society, particularly after he is seen conversing with blacks in the aborigine dialect, culminates with several settlers attacking him. Eventually he abandons the "civilized" ways of the whites and rejoins Australia's indigenous community. Critics have lauded Malouf's focus on the relationship between politics, language, social stature, and personal and national identity in Remembering Babylon, praising the novel as a document of Australia's history, European settlement, and multifaceted population. Reviewers have additionally admired Malouf's use of Gemmy as a means of discussing the sublime in literature, the alienating and binding nature of language, and the paradox posed by the individual's need for acceptance and desire to distinguish between self and the "Other." In honoring Malouf with the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, judge Annette Smith stated: "Malouf's novel testifies all along to the confusion of languages. It demonstrates the demonic nature of words, both their destructive power and their creative force, as Gemmy's past and his new identity take form."
∗Bicycle, and Other Poems (poetry) 1970
Neighbours in a Thicket (poetry) 1974
Johnno (novel) 1975
Poems, 1975–1976 (poetry) 1976
An Imaginary Life (novel) 1978
Wild Lemons (poetry) 1980
†Child's Play; The Bread of Time to Come (novellas) 1981
First Things Last (poetry) 1981
Selected Poems (poetry) 1981
Child's Play; Eustace; The Prowler (novella and short stories) 1982
Harland's Half Acre (novel) 1984
Antipodes (short stories) 1985
12 Edmondstone Street (memoir) 1985
Blood Relations (drama) 1988
The Great World (novel) 1990
Remembering Babylon (novel) 1993
∗This work was published as The Year of the Foxes, and Other Poems in 1979.
†The Bread of Time to Come was published as Fly Away Peter in 1982.
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SOURCE: "Forgetting Colonialism," in Meanjin, Vol. 52, No. 3, September, 1993, pp. 545-58.
[In the essay below, Otto analyzes Malouf's portrayal of male-female relationships, the sublime, the political, and the social in Remembering Babylon, noting Malouf's delineation of the evolution of Australia's colonial identity into a national identity.]
Whether this is Jerusalem or Babylon we know not.
Blake, The Four Zoas
Remembering Babylon begins 'One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast', at an imaginary line that purportedly divides colonial settlement from its Unknown. It may at first seem odd to associate this locale with Babylon but, as the first of the book's two epigraphs suggests, one of the title's allusions is to Blake's Babylon, a city formed by the dismemberment of Albion (England). The allusion suggests that colonial Australia is a dismembered Albion, formed by successive waves of transportation and migration. If the scattered pieces of Albion's body could be put back together again, then, according to Blake, Babylon would become Jerusalem once more and Albion would rise from the grave. Malouf attempts an analogous task in Remembering Babylon. The book...
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SOURCE: "A 'Black White Man' in Colonial Australia," in The New York Times, October 19, 1993, p. C19.
[In the following favorable review of Remembering Babylon, Kakutani praises Malouf's characterizations and his focus on Australian history.]
The Babylon referred to in the title of David Malouf's new novel Remembering Babylon is Australia: a 19th-century frontier that many of its settlers regarded as Eden, a New World paradise where they might make a fresh start and begin new lives, tabula rasa. Yet as we learn in this astonishing novel, Australia was also a harsh, dangerous land, a place that brought out in its colonizers the dark passions of racism, brutality and hate.
Remembering Babylon, Mr. Malouf's seventh novel, takes place "one day in the middle of the 19th century" in a small British settlement in the desolate territory of Queensland on the eastern coast of Australia. Three young children, Janet and Meg McIvor and their cousin Lachlan, are playing at the edge of the family paddock, when they see something amazing: a creature that seems half animal, half child emerges from the wilderness (that "abode of everything savage and fearsome") and slowly makes its way towards them. A hopping and flapping bird, they think, or maybe a scarecrow "that had somehow caught the spark of life."
Lachlan takes a stick and aims it, like a gun, at the...
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SOURCE: "Strangers in a Strange Land," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 31, 1993, pp. 3, 8.
[An American critic and journalist, Eder received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1987. In the following review, he discusses Malouf's focus on alienation, colonialism, identity, and cultural conflict in Remembering Babylon.]
There is no fully satisfactory word to oppose to exile, that forced removal and dismayed regret for a land that will always be home. Contemporary Australian writers need such a word; it would denote the forcible remover, and the dismay of occupying a land that will always be alien.
"Invader" doesn't quite do it. What such gifted authors as Rodney Hall, Janette Turner Hospital and Peter Carey conjure up is more like the notion of crime in Greek tragedy than in our present-day world: a transgression against the gods committed without knowledge or intention, but which must be paid for anyway. Explicitly or by remote implication, these authors evoke the land-spirits of the aboriginal culture as the deities who punish white settlers and their descendants by estrangement or even wreckage of the spirit.
David Malouf, too, makes settler estrangement the theme of his new novel Remembering Babylon. He uses it quite as powerfully as the others but in quite a different way. Where their writing is drastic and nightmarish, his is muted and...
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SOURCE: "The Wild Child," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 20, December 2, 1993, pp. 13-15.
[In the review below, Truax offers a thematic discussion of Remembering Babylon.]
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...
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SOURCE: "Dark Terror," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 28, Winter, 1993–94, pp. 54-5.
[In the review below, Garner favorably assesses Remembering Babylon, stating that this is "Malouf's best book" to date.]
The Australian writer David Malouf's new novel is a compact import—at a lean two hundred pages, it's practically a novella—but it arrives with a mighty rumble behind it. In the U.K. Remembering Babylon is an odds-on bet to grab the Booker Prize, and elsewhere in Europe the book has been heralded as Malouf's long-awaited breakthrough. The hype isn't mere woodsmoke: Remembering Babylon, a shrewd meditation on Australia's racial and cultural divides, has the intellectual heft and moral resonance of novels three times its length. It's Malouf's best book, and it's a beauty.
Remembering Babylon's modest size wouldn't be worth remarking if Malouf's last novel, The Great World (1990), hadn't spread itself across such a sprawling canvas. The book's World War II-era narrative followed an unlikely pair of misfits across several decades and continents, and it moved with the ruthless certainty of fate. As potent as The Great World was, though, Remembering Babylon focuses Malouf's flame: his masterful sentences, which are artfully unmannered and oblique, have never marched forward to greater effect.
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SOURCE: "Artful," in Quadrant, Vol. XXXVIII, Nos. 1-2, January-February, 1994, pp. 115-17.
[Blanche is a New South Wales novelist. In the excerpt below, she faults Malouf's focus on characterization rather than theme in Remembering Babylon.]
Remembering Babylon, David Malouf's latest novel, is beautifully written, as indeed is everything that Malouf produces. It is a story about a small Queensland settlement in the mid-1800s and how the arrival of a mancreature from out of the bush affects it.
… and its flamelike flickering, was not even, maybe, human. 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, and now, neither one thing nor the other, was hopping and flapping towards them out of a world over there, beyond the no-man's-land of the swamp, that was the abode of everything savage and fearsome, and since it lay so far beyond experience, not just their own but their parents' too, of nightmare rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark.
Gemmy, a white man, whose first appearance is thus described, has lived in the bush with the Aborigines for many years. No mother exists in his earliest memories, just himself as a sweeper in...
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SOURCE: A review of Remembering Babylon, in Boston Review, Vol. XIX, No. 1, February-March, 1994, pp. 32, 34.
[Blume is an American novelist. In the following, he offers praise for Remembering Babylon, comparing the novel to Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902).]
There is an area forever associated with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an area of meeting, crossover, mixture, transgression, an area inhabited—incarnated—by Kurtz. Kurtz is the renegade, the one who has abandoned western identity to assume unspeakable powers in an African forest hidden almost entirely from view of Belgium's river steamers. When Kurtz returns to, or is retrieved by, the West, it is only to rave eloquently and die. He never explains the mystery; he is the mystery. He can't articulate the taboo; he is the interdiction itself, the broken commandment, in his very being. The tablets of the law are shattered on the golden calf. Out of this collision comes a Kurtz.
David Malouf returns to this supercharged Conradian terrain and summons language strong enough to hold it open, to make it bearable, nearly, for the duration of his remarkable novel, Remembering Babylon. Whereas Kurtz, invoked for most of Heart of Darkness, only materializes at the end, Malouf presents us with his creature of two worlds, his in-between, nearly at the beginning....
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SOURCE: "The Tower of Babble," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 13, 1994, p. B.
[An educator, Smith was one of the judges responsible for awarding Malouf the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction. In the essay below, she discusses Malouf's focus on language, boundaries, and the human condition in Remembering Babylon.]
One day, in the middle of the last century, when white settlement was crawling, tentatively, up the coast of Queensland, three children were stopped in their games by the sight of a strange "thing" in the nearby swamps: perhaps "a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another … had been changed into a bird, but only halfway, and now, neither one thing nor the other, was hopping and flapping towards them out of a world … that was the abode of everything savage and fearsome … and of all that belonged to the Absolute Dark."
What they had taken for a lone aborigine raider turns out to be Gemmy Fairley, a "black white" with hair as blond as theirs. As the creature stands, scarecrow-like at the top of the boundary fence, facing a toy gun, he shouts "Do not shoot…. I am a B-b-british object!" One mark of a great novel, it might be said, is that its totality be already contained in its first few paragraphs, and such is certainly the case for Remembering Babylon, this year's winner of the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize....
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Sheppard, R. Z. "The Wild Man Within." Time 142, No. 17 (25 October 1993): 82, 85.
Favorable assessment of Remembering Babylon. Sheppard asserts that this is "a remarkably original book: a lyric history that is also a national contra-epic."
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