David Malouf Malouf, David (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Peter Otto (essay date September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 re-members the divisions of colonial Australia, not to reconstruct an imperial Albion but to build a New Jerusalem of (Australian) national identity.

In the aftermath of the Mabo ruling and in the year of indigenous peoples, it hardly needs to be said that this project is fraught with difficulty. Phrases such as 'halfway up the coast' of Queensland and 'One day in the middle of the nineteenth century' will inevitably evoke two very different kinds of recollection. On the one hand, this locale might stand for the point from which a properly Australian identity springs. On the other hand, it is the site of violent dispossession. How is Malouf to re-member the different histories and cultures that collide at this point?

From the first pages of Remembering Babylon it is evident that the book sets out to re-member the former rather than the latter. It displaces the second set of recollections by translating the political into the psychological, and matters of history and politics into questions of creativity and aesthetics. The border between settlers and indigenous peoples is interpreted through a Romantic (or postmodern romantic) psychology and tropology which reads such encounters as thresholds or borders of consciousness. 'Halfway up the coast' of Queensland in the 'middle of the nineteenth century', one does not stumble across a site of dispossession or conflict between races; instead, one comes face to face with the Unknown. The book goes on to suggest that contact between European settlers and the Unknown occurs at a place just beyond the reach of imperial power where, thanks to the mysteries of the imagination, it becomes possible to build an authentic Australian identity.

The translation of the political into the aesthetic and psychological, and the accompanying metamorphosis of the colonial into the national, appears in different guises in other fictions by Malouf. One might describe Remembering Babylon as reformulating, in a more historically specific idiom, the mythology outlined in An Imaginary Life. It is instructive to trace some of the key moments in the erasure of the political in Remembering Babylon, and in particular the use of the sublime to orchestrate his remembering of colonialism. I should underline that my concern is not with the views of Malouf as an individual, but with the implications of the discourse that structures this book. I take as given the literary virtuosity that makes Malouf one of Australia's most accomplished writers.

At the threshold between settler society and the Unknown, 'something extraordinary' occurs. Before the startled eyes of the McIvor children, Janet and Meg, and their cousin, Lachlan Beattie, something separates itself from the forbidden world on the other side of the line:

a fragment of ti-tree swamp, some bit of the land over there that was forbidden to them, had detached itself from the band of grey that made up the far side of the swamp, and in a shape more like a watery, heat-struck mirage than a thing of substance, elongated and airily indistinct, was bowling, leaping, flying towards them.

The cousins' first thought is that they are being 'raided by blacks', but this conjecture turns out to be wrong:

The stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints, suggested a wounded water-bird, a brolga, or a human that … 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 noman'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.

In the face of this threat from a being that eludes classification, the children's game of make-believe is disrupted, and they stand transfixed, almost as if turned to stone.

Even from this thumbnail sketch it is evident that Lachlan, Meg and Janet are actors in a drama belonging to the literature of the sublime. The opening pages of Remembering Babylon follow the first steps in the plot of the sublime: a state of harmony between subject and object (play or habitual activity) is disrupted by a superior power that brings 'irresistible might to bear' and then to a sense of blockage in which, as Edmund Burke described it [in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful], all of the motions of the soul 'are suspended, with some degree of horror'. This moment of blockage is followed by a powerful sense of release, which for the male subject leads to a newly invigorated identity. This is achieved through a complex sequence of accommodations and transformations. First, the threatening force dissipates. Second, what was at first experienced as a disruptive, blocking force comes to be understood as a sign of a transcendental power that orders and stabilizes the world. The terms used to describe this power are quite diverse: God in the religious sublime, the self or the imagination in the Romantic sublime, language or desire in the postmodern sublime, and so on. Third, some of the might formerly attributed to the blocking agent is now transferred to the subject. As Burke explains,

Now whatever … tends to raise a man in his own opinion, produces a sort of swelling and triumph that is extremely grateful to the human mind; and this swelling is never more perceived … than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind always claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates.

In Remembering Babylon one can trace a very similar sequence of transformations and accommodations.

As if waking from a momentary trance, Lachlan steps 'resolutely' out in front of the girls in order to do 'what his manhood required him to do'. He raises his make-believe gun to his shoulder and confronts the phantom. This act of defiance has staggering results. First, the horrifying power turns out to be nothing more than Gemmy (or Jimmy) Fairley (or Farrelly). He is a white man, even though he has 'the mangy, half-starved look of a black'. Gemmy, it transpires, 'had been cast overboard from a passing ship' when he was thirteen and 'had been living since in the scrub country to the north with blacks'. As if in recognition that he stands at a border between worlds, Gemmy jumps onto the top rail of a fence and for a few moments balances between the world he has left and the one he is to enter. He is unable to remain at this point for long. Once he has confessed that he is 'a B-b-british object!' his descent into settler society is swift: Gemmy falls to the ground, crawls 'about with his nose in the dust', is advised to stop speaking in the Aboriginal language he has learnt, and is finally taken into custody by Lachlan and marched back to the white world.

Just as astonishingly, as the Unknown withers, Lachlan expands. It is as if some of the power that had once belonged to the Unknown has been transferred to him. As Lachlan prods the man he has taken prisoner, he hears 'sounds of such eager submissiveness' that his 'heart swelled'.

He had a powerful sense of the springing of his torso from the roots of his belly. He had known nothing like this! He was bringing a prisoner in. Armed with nothing, too, but his own presumptuous daring and the power of make-believe.

The encounter with the Unknown transports Lachlan from the position of child to that of young adult, from the Imaginary to the Symbolic realm. As a young adult, the stick he wields has become 'what his gesture had claimed for it': the Phallus. He is now able to lay claim to the Law (he takes Gemmy into custody), language (he is the one able to translate Gemmy's attempts at communication) and masculine authority (he gives directions to his cousins, and they obey him).

Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the language of the sublime was frequently invoked by travellers, explorers and writers as a discourse appropriate for an encounter with an alien land or people. A representative instance of this usage can be seen in J. W. Gregory's The Dead Heart of Australia (1909), which offers an account of Gregory's journey around Lake Eyre in 1901–2. In the eleventh chapter of this book, Gregory describes an encounter that closely follows the scenario that I have been describing.

Gregory begins with an account of his boyhood 'yearning for the opportunity of travel', and his particular fascination with the desert, which promises a 'soothing solitude, and the exhilaration of its buoyant sense of freedom'. Unfortunately, when he enacts his dreams, reality stubbornly blocks his desires. The surface of the desert is 'black and rocky'; he gets sun blisters 'from the heat reflected from the ground'; 'a westerly gale' pelts him with 'coarse, black grit'; and the water he is carrying becomes 'warm and putrid, and almost poisonous'. As the narrative proceeds, the desert is personified as a fearsome adversary. What had been the source of a merely physical discomfort now produces an astounding catalogue of horrors:

A vision rises before us of the desperate struggles of the lost explorer, and of the despair of his last mile's march. We begin to realise the agony of death by thirst, when the sun is burning like fire, and perhaps swarms of ants are stinging like a medieval 'jailer's daughter'. We then understand how Nature can rival the malignant tortures of the Inquisition.

Gregory responds to this adversary with a surprising degree of passion. He describes the desert as 'an enemy that must be fought' (my emphasis) and the sun 'in its fiery march' across the sky inspires feelings which 'sometimes approach to hatred'. Night, however, effects a miraculous deflation of the blocking power. The passive foe is softened, the active adversary is displaced by a faint light, and 'the demon dread of day' is exorcized: 'The air is cool and bracing; the low, brown hills that looked so near, but are so far, can no longer mock, or the mirage tantalise.' The desert's blocking force is displaced by a silence broken only by a 'barely perceptible humming' that 'one is tempted to believe' is the music of the spheres, 'such as that you dream'd about'. In touch with this transcendental order, Gregory is elevated and renewed.

Why should this elaborate scenario be used to describe an experience in the desert at the beginning of the twentieth century? Or, for that matter, why should Malouf use the sublime to describe an event that occurs in the 'middle of the nineteenth century', 'halfway up the coast' of Queensland? Remembering Babylon and The Dead Heart of Australia suggest at least three answers to these questions.

First, the sublime offers a powerful set of procedures for constructing a self in the face of an external threat. In effect it is a defence reaction that preserves the self against alterity. Second, the sublime consolidates this self by staging a drama that recapitulates a socially constructed division between the genders. In psychoanalytic terms, Lachlan's (and Gregory's) masculine identity is determined as much by his ability to separate himself from the feminine and the maternal (the pre-Oedipal world suggested by Gregory's dreams and Lachlan's make-believe) as by his willingness to take his father ('his manhood') as a model. The sublime offers an opportunity to effect this separation by dividing the world into two radically different groups: those who are overcome by 'power and irresistible might' and those who are able to assume this power as their own; the passive and the active; women and men.

In a colonial context, however, there is a third reason for the invocation of the sublime. The sublime offers a colonial (and post-colonial) society a drama in which the settler's encounter with an indigenous people and an alien land can...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 19 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Richard Eder (review date 31 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alice Truax (review date 2 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dwight Garner (review date Winter 1993–1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cynthia Blanche (review date January-February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Harvey Blume (review date February-March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Annette Smith (essay date 13 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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."

(The entire section is 59 words.)