Remembering Babylon Summary

David Malouf

Remembering Babylon

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Remembering Babylon Summary

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Australian author David Malouf published Remembering Babylon in 1993. The novel, which won several literary awards, follows a European child’s clashing experience in a non-western land.Its inspiration comes from the true observations of a British sailor, James “Gemmy” Morrill. As with An Imaginary life(his 1978 novella that follows Virgil’s exile in contemporary Mongolia) Malouf’s work deals with isolation, the nuances of language acquisition, and subjectivity across cultures and times.

In Remembering Babylon, Malouf gives a close third person tale that follows Gemmy Fairley. The point of view shifts throughout the novel to bolster the plot and mimic how truth and insight is gradually discovered.

Gemmy lives outside a string of an early Queensland settlement. It is the 1850s. The specific city-in-progress he ends up visiting is never revealed. As a young boy, he fell off of a ship and into the ocean; he was rescued by aboriginal tribes in Queensland. Sixteen years have passed when Gemmy living with the aboriginals when he chooses to leave the bush to reconnect with other Europeans.

The narrator describes the different attitudes and feelings the Aboriginals and the incoming Australians have toward the land. The aboriginals feel incorporated into the landscape; the UK settlers feel distrustful of it and therefore need to subjugate and control it.

Gemmy first meets some a group of boys around his own age. Led by 12-year-old Lachlan Beattie, the boys are entertaining themselves in the Australian bush by pretending to hunt for wolves.

When the boys first encounter Gemmy, they are shocked by his sun-tarred skin and fried white hair; they think he’s an albino-looking native person. It doesn’t help that Gemmy (now a young man) only recalls a few phrases of English. Afraid of Gemmy’s mysterious presence, Lachlan grabs a stick and points it at Gemmy. He claims it is a gun, and Gemmy, recognizing the gesture of violence, surrenders.

The men are deeply suspicious of this young man coming into their settlement. They fear that he’s an aboriginal spy, scouting out their camp to report back to his people weaknesses in their own defense system.

In conversations the men have with themselves, Malouf also shows that Gemmy is a threat to qualities they thought were permanent: civilization, language, and race. Gemmy’s proves otherwise; traits that seem insurmountable can actually be overtaken and converted to something else entirely.

When some people spot Gemmy talking with two Aboriginals, rumors circulate that Gemmy is definitely a spy. More settlers grow to dislike him, referring to him as “white black.”

Gemmy does have some supporters. There is a Scottish farmer, Jock McIvor, who gives speeches defending Gemmy, as well as shelter. The gardener and minister, Reverend Frazer, also speaks in Gemmy’s defense. He admires Gemmy for adjusting to the environment rather than cruelly forcing this “part of the world’s garden” to meet his personal demands. The school teacher, Abbot, says that Gemmy is a pillar of human fortitude for being able to survive in a brutal land for so long.

McIvor’s daughter and nephew, Janet McIvor and Lachlan Beattie respectively, also comfort Gemmy and try to get him to remember his native tongue.

Time passes and the settlers deliberate among themselves what to do about Gemmy. Though they have settled along the coast, they live close to the wilderness, and horrified that persistent contact with that “other” world will rid themselves of their core identity. Soon, their fears get the best of them: a group violently beats Gemmy before chasing him from the area.

Though Gemmy has disappeared, his effect on the town is final. The people who supported Gemmy are now mistrusted by the community. Gemmy’s presence also stays within them like ghosts. For the rest of their lives, they are haunted by Gemmy’s exile and the question of the loss of their own identity. This minority also begins to view the landscape as something to be respected, appreciated, and conjoined with (an aboriginal view) rather than a space to be controlled and dominated. For instance, minister Mr. Frazer entreats the local governor of Brisbane, Sir George, to consider Gemmy’s attitudes toward the natural world; the governor does not take Mr. Frazer or Gemmy seriously at all.

One day, Janet, helping the odd bee-keeper lady, Mrs. Hutchence, is stung by a horde of bees. She has an intense religious experience that paves the way for her orthodox involvement with a religious sect later in the novel.

The novel comes to a close during WWI. It is hinted that Gemmy died in a raid on a native settlement. Lachlan is now a government minister.He visits his cousin Janet in a convent to discuss a naturalized British citizen of German heritage who may be deported because of the anti-German influence during and after World War I. While walking through a garden, they also fondly remember Gemmy and the call for reflection and respect that he encouraged in their own lives.