Monday, 12 April 2010

Queensland - Remembering Babylon

The thing I love most about this virtual journey around the world is that I'm reading books I would probably never have read otherwise.  In reading Remembering Babylon by one of Queensland's most famous writers, David Malouf, I would like to think that it's a book that would have eventually found its way to me.  It's exactly the kind of book I love to read and I really savoured every moment of it.

I guess I'm not the first person to draw parallels between Queensland and an exotic (or savage?) garden and Malouf's title is incredibly significant, as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon become a metaphor for the enchanting, and often frightening world, that the European characters stumble in to.  There is a pervasive sense of fear in the book - set in a pioneering European community in 19th century Queensland, you really get a sense of the uncertainty in the lives of the settlers.  Most of them have given up everything to 'make it' in Australia and there is a fear that the unknown will overwhelm their community, that the seed of colonisation is sown in an incredibly fragile earth. 

The novel centres around Gemmy, an aboriginal tribesman who stumbles out of the wilderness and comes across a group of three children belonging to the McIvor family, orginally from Scotland.  Except Gemmy is not really an Aborigine.  It turns out that he is an Englishman who was shipwrecked as a boy and rescued by an Aboriginal tribe that adopt him as their own.  Gemmy's presence in the new community causes all kinds of conflict and unease.  His complex identity also raises important questions about race and culture - it becomes apparent as the novel progresses that Gemmy's white skin is pretty much irrelevant to the majority of the community and they prefer to think of him as an Aborigine.

Gemmy's savage appearance and behaviour embarrasses the settlers.  At a time when 'being civilised' is of utmost importance to the psychological survival of the community, Gemmy clowns around, speaks a half-forgotten English and seemingly parodies the settlers and white culture.  The men are afraid of him because of all the things he might have experienced when he was living with the Aborigines.  Although nothing is explicitly stated, it's implied that he has witnessed and participated in all kinds of sexual deviance - homosexuality amongst other things - they are also afraid of the things he has eaten and even suspect him of cannibalism. 

Mr McIvor is a very reluctant defender of Gemmy's presence, but defend him he does and comes across as being one of the more sympathetic characters in the book, refusing to bend to the will of his neighbours and refusing to lose all sense of reality, when the other men hysterically accuse Gemmy of convening with the natives and practising some kind of black magic, using a (non-existent) stone.  When the men come for Gemmy, they come in the night.  As though their deeds won't be recognised in the dark.  Mr McIvor rescues Gemmy from the aggression of his neighbours, but the incident hints at a much darker aspect.  By attacking Gemmy, the neighbours are, in fact, attacking the McIvors.  They are undermining the safety of the community and, without realising the seriousness of their actions, they are bringing the situation to the point of anarchy.

The role of the women in the novel is quite different to that of the men and it gave me an interesting perspective in how women managed to hold things together in the early days of the new colony.  Mrs McIvor is a romantic woman.  Coming from the Scottish mining town of Airdrie, she saw all of her brothers go into the mines, coming up pale creatures, spiritually crushed, the whole mining community crammed into a damp corner of Lanarkshire, she dreams of sunshine and wide, open spaces.  She falls in love with Mr McIvor because of the warmth of his skin and his resoluteness in the face of the harsh environment of the frontier in Queensland.

She inspires her daughters with this romanticism, especially the oldest daughter Janet who dreams of Scotland, her mother's world 'more alive and interesting, more crowded with things, with people too, than the one she was in.'  There is a balance of the sexes in that the McIvors take in an orphaned nephew from Scotland, Lachlan, and the story also belongs to Lachlan and Janet.  One of the images that most appealed to me was the image of Janet's mother, Mrs McIvor, washing a dress with a pattern of larkspur on it, thinking how she might never see larkspur again.  The European plant on her dress clashes with the natural world she finds herself in.

Malouf is known for his interest in language and the problems of communication, especially between men, and language is central to the story.  Babylon is not just an exotic garden, it is also Babel, the land of mixing languages and cultures.  Scottish, Irish, English and Aborigine.  The Hanging Garden of Babylon was built by Nebuchadnezzar II for his homesick Persian Queen, Amyitis.  In many ways, the Europeans try to tame the Australian landscape, to feed the homesickness they feel inside. 

At the end of the novel Janet, or Sister Monica, as she becomes, offers an apple to Lachlan, opening up an intimacy that helps them reminisce about their childhoods.  Babylon is also a kind of Garden of Eden, a loss of innocence with the coming of European civilisation.  Janet and Lachlan find themselves in a world that is beyond their creation or control.

I would definitely recommend reading this novel.  It's so full of poetry and it would seem as though every single word is in the right place.  It's easy to read, but deals with incredibly complex issues. 

Image credits:

The image of the book cover is from http://www.openlibrary.org/

The image of the bee and the larkspur is courtesy of flickuser Bruce McKay who is a school principle working in a First Nation community on the Yukon/British Columbia border in Canada.  Thanks Bruce for sharing this wonderful image with us. 
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