Challenging or Naturalizing Ideas about Australia

In the grace period of Australia’s colonial development, many cultural assumptions and ideas were created in response to the increase of British immigration. Australia was a home away from home, a land of opportunity and adventure that allowed the English populace ‘freedom’ from the almost oppressive presence of the British Empire. David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, the story of a nameless white settlement in Northern Queensland, presents a perspective often seen in literary texts of this nature, that being the birth of nationhood and the true foundations of Australian culture as we know it. The assumptions many have of what nineteenth century Australia was like and what has since been retained and is evident in the modern-day culture, has been clearly referenced and explored in Remembering Babylon. The reader can see their suspicions, ideas and assumptions challenged and naturalized in equal measure.

As most would assume, any text exploring the nature of the nineteenth century would be expected to have the heavy presence of religion hanging over the characters and story arc. It’s no secret that the British Empire, and most of the Euro-centric world, were founded on the backs of beliefs originating from Biblical texts and the Roman Catholic Church. For the most part, the narrative takes place in a colony of predominantly white citizens, and a key idea about Australia would be that religion heavily features in day-to-day life. However, Malouf hardly brushes upon religious queries as he explores the true nature of the people who have settled the land. Even a character that should be heavily associated with the church, this being the minister Mr Frazer, does not seem to be overtly concerned over any religious matters or expectations. Mr Frazer is presented as a man of science first and a man of God second. He is shown to feel most at home in the summer woods of the surrounding area. He feels despondent in the world of men, only feeling his true purpose arise as a “night wanderer,” one that explores “the life of creatures that were abroad, as he was, while the human world slept.” His identity as the sole religious figure in the town plays second fiddle to the part of himself that detaches from his faith, except that which he puts in his botanizing, “his one sure refuge.” One would expect a man of God to seek refuge in the embrace of the Lord, as religious texts guide the faithful to do. However, Mr Frazer, no matter how dedicated to God he might appear to be in the public’s eye, the true calling he seeks is in the night creatures and the night flowering plants that “touch on his hidden nature.” Mr Frazer challenges the idea that religion is predominant in Australia. His botanical pursuits and the manner in which he critically evaluates the world, suggests that while being present in Church is expected, it is not a key part of Australian culture now, or ever.

Before Australia developed ideas of independence and estrangement from the British ‘Motherland,’ many British immigrants thought of Australia as a home away from home. A land, though different in ecosystem and environment, to be molded into a second England, no different from the first. Malouf challenges this belief entirely, and while he explains that the appearance of the country can be changed on a superficial level, he acknowledges that the power in the landscape itself, is absolute and can never truly be shifted or diverted into something it is not. The influence the land has over the white settlers and their way of life is evident as the third-person point-of-view shifts to focus on a particular character and their relation with their new home. It is Janet who first takes a moment of solemnity with the land. She sits underneath a tree, picking at a scab. When the hard crust lifts, she is amazed to find “a colour she had never seen before, and another skin, lustrous as a pearl. A delicate pink, it might have belonged to some other creature altogether.” This is a small token of what is to come for Janet and a symbolic premonition of her future life. The crusted, hard shell of the scab is her preconceived English notions of sensibility and proprietary. The picking of the scab, -which in itself defies the notion of the well-mannered and respectable English lady – reveals new skin, a new life that Janet has only a glimpse at and she know it is something precious and unique. With this new “secret skin,” she explores the world around her, and she begins to notice the world waking up in front of her new eyes. “All the velvety grass heads blaze up, haloed with gold,” and she feels a sensation of elation. As the passage goes on, Malouf begins to utilize delicate personification, giving her surroundings a living, breathing life force that swells and pulses around her. The “tattered ribbon” bark of the trees is replaced by “smooth skin of the palest green, streaked with orange and what seemed like the powdery redness of blood.” In this moment, Janet – and the reader – realize that the land she takes for granted is an entity in itself, something in touch with its own secret self. The Australian landscape, while passive in a traditional sense, is a powerful presence throughout the novel and something that shapes and changes the characters of Remembering Babylon. It is through this personification that the reader realizes that Australia is not a ‘home away from home,’ but it’s own country, separate and different and nothing like Mother England for the colonists who breath and work the land.

White settlement in Australia is, and always will be, the catalyst of overarching social discord. The British Empire disturbed a land, and culture 50 000 years in the making, setting in motion a series of events that have lead to the razing of a civilization, a loss of identity and the genocide of an entire continent. This is the basis of assumption Malouf relies upon as he explores themes of racism and the marginalization of an entire people. The reader enters the novel with an idea of Australia’s discordant past and an expectation that the depiction of racist and discriminatory characters will occur. The notion of ‘the Other,’ is a common theme when referring to post-colonial texts. While Gemmy was not born an Aborigine, his sixteen years living amongst the Northern Queensland tribe have physically – and ideologically – changed Gemmy into a fence sitter, both metaphorically and literally, as he is introduced as something perched on a fence bordering the settlement. Gemmy is a bridge between two conflicting groups of people, a “white black man” regarded as an outside twice over. Unfortunately, to the more close-minded individuals of the settlement, he acts, thinks and looks enough like “one of Them” to incite a call for violence committed against him. When Gemmy is taken by “a crowd of bodiless whispers” and savagely beaten by a group of men who had decided to take action against him, he cannot possibly hope to identify them and must therefore assume that these others, “all knuckled hands and shoulders and rough heads and breaths,” could be anyone and therefore everyone in the settlement. This translates as a depiction of the ceaseless violence rampant in nineteenth century Australia. No laws or rules were set in issues regarding ‘dealing with the Natives,’ essentially creating an enabling environment where no citizen of European descent would be punished for crimes later regarded as inexcusable. Ideas on the racist nature of Australian culture, both then and now, are naturalized in texts like Remembering Babylon. Texts that explore ideologies of past Australians can neither hide nor erase what was done to the Aboriginal people and what has carried over into the modern-day cultural identity of Australia. In this way, Remembering Babylon naturalizes ideas and assumptions regarding the rampant racism in current, and past, Australia.

As nationhood in a country grows stronger and the population grows larger, the avoidance of stereotypes, assumptions and ideas about the country become impossible. In this respect, the depiction of nineteenth century Australia in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon provides an interesting perspective on the state of post-colonial Australia and the beliefs and ideas the English settlers had on their ‘new home.’ While not an entirely accurate rendition of the time, as it was published in 1993, almost an entire 150 years after the events supposedly take place, with the perspective Malouf provides, the reader can relatively accurately have their ideas about Australia in that time period either challenged or naturalized. Remembering Babylon details key themes and assumptions associated with the time, including connotations of a religion’s lack of power and influence in the Australian lifestyle, the acceptance of the unchanging nature of the landscape itself and of course, the manifestation of racism, whether it be casual or not, in the Australian cultural identity both past and present.

Foreshadowing in Remembering Babylon

The first chapter of Remembering Babylon contains the introduction young boy, Gemmy, and his first encounter with the white settlers of Australia. The exposition foreshadows characters’ actions and potential conflicts, establishing later events in the novel and Gemmy’s eventual rejection from society. As Gemmy finds, violence and conflict are conditions of life – or at least of his life – that prove nearly inescapable.

In the exposition of Remembering Babylon, future conflicts are foreshadowed through the characters’ initial reactions to Gemmy’s entrance to their society. Upon Gemmy’s entrance to the society, Lachlan’s first reaction is, “A black! That was the boys first thought. We’re being raided by blacks. After so many false alarms it had come” (2). This initial reaction characterizes the conventional societal view of the aboriginal people in the eyes of the white settlers. By revealing that the setters viewed attack as inevitable characterizes a negative, distrustful, and violent relationship early in the text. Establishing the context for for later conflict between the cultures and the eventual rejection of Gemmy from society, which Gemmy then leaves to return to the aboriginal people. The way the people regard Gemmy as not fully assimilated in their culture in the later town meeting as they “faced the black white man” (10) also foreshadows the conflict and rejection of differences in society. The town cannot look past the fact that the boy was raised by a different culture and thus regard him as something else altogether. This foreshadows Gemmy’s later return to “black” society as he cannot return to white society, and is openly rejected. All of the conflict foreshadowed in the exposition, the hostility between the white and native people in Australia eventually leads to the conclusion of the story, in which Gemmy is slaughtered along with some aboriginals in “too slight an affair to be called a massacre” (189). The commonplace violence in the society, established in the exposition, foreshadows the inevitable violence and death of aboriginal characters, and by extension, Gemmy.

The exposition also establishes Gemmy’s character and role in society, with the introduction alluding to how he sees himself in society and how he will be treated. Gemmy’s first words are “Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object!” (3) as he runs up to the McIvor household. While this can be seen as simply a matter of Gemmy’s limited vocabulary having been separated from society for so long, it also establishes his eventual role within the white society. He is treated like an object to be traded around by the white people, with little care to his opinion and his own status as a human. He even sees himself as an object to be used as he continually attempts to please everyone in hope for some recognition of his worth and humanity. In the exposition, Gemmy is also described as having a look as if he is wondering “how he had got there or where he was” (8). This establishes Gemmy’s confusion with the new society and his attempts to assimilate despite his confusion, a situation that can only result in failure as seen as the novel progresses.

Gemmy’s initial reaction to society in the exposition establishes him as a confused, eager to please boy, rejected and ostracized by white society. The exposition also establishes the papers as objects that have great meaning to Gemmy as he thinks they have taken his magic, setting up later events. The first thing the townspeople have him do is write an account of who he is, to assess his intelligence. However, through this, the deeply ingrained aboriginal views Gemmy has is revealed to the reader as immediately “he began to plot…how to steal it back” (20) because he believes the words have magic. He admits he feels drained without them, also revealing that in this society he is not healthy and not living his best life. In the conclusion of Gemmy’s tale he is “leaving the schoolhouse…the papers safely in his pocket” (180), having decided to rejoin the aboriginal tribe and leave the white settlers behind. The initial establishment of Gemmy’s discomfort in white society and his aboriginal views of words as power and magic reveal that Gemmy is ultimately not cut out for the conflict and society he has just joined, thus foreshadowing his eventual departure.

Foreshadowing in Remembering Babylon plays a key role in the conflicts that come to dominate the text. Through the foreshadowing of potential conflicts and events Malouf asserts and conflict between cultures and the unknown is near inevitable due to fear and isolation in society. Moreover, through these foreshadowed events, Malouf reveals that conflict in life will always be present.