This week we’re travelling to Australia, more precisely to Queensland back in the 1840s. The book I’m telling you about is Remembering Babylon by Australian writer (and poet) David Malouf. It is a little pearl, as every novel by this author. I would say his books are poetry in prose.
This novel is set in an unnamed settlement and begins with the sudden appearence of Gemmy Fairley, an English castaway who had been rescued by Aborigines and had lived among them for sixteen years before crossing into the territory claimed by his countrymen. His is befriended by the family of the two children who found him, and forges a strange and silent friendship with them.
The key image of the novel is Gemmy balancing on a fence, simbolising the division between the civilized and the savage primitive world, but also a border between two entirely different ways of being in the world. Gemmy is the link between these two worlds: he is a hybrid creature. He embodies the moment of contact between the natives – and the land they inhabit – and colonizers, when divisions in Australia could be healed, and stresses the fact that a choice between two cultures is an impoverishment as the real challenge is to be children of both.
This novel is a pessimistic view of the colonial project, the story of the missed opportunities which a meeting of different cultures could provide. But the knowledge gained by some of the characters hints that a change is still attainable. A hybrid culture represents the ideal ultimate outcome of the colonial process.
Out beyond the flatlands the line of light pulses and swells. The sea, in sight now, ruffles, accelerates. Quickly now it is rising towards us, it approaches. As we approach prayer. As we approach knowledge. As we approach one another.
It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it, and the light, running in fast now, reaches the edges of the shore, just so far in its orders, and all the muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of running fire all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life.