A brilliant tale of the forging of Australia

January 24, 1994|By Desmond Ryan | Desmond Ryan,Knight-Ridder News Service

When the tired and mysterious stranger shows up in a remote community in the Australian outback, it is natural to assume that we are in for another plunge into that surely exhausted genre that makes the outsider an innocent but revelatory observer.

But in the confident and gifted hands of the Australian poet and novelist David Malouf, "Remembering Babylon" is a brilliantly rendered reminder of the boundless possibilities of the situation. When the young man approaches the tiny settlement in the barren reaches of Queensland in the 1840s, a boy picks up a long stick and aims it like a gun.

"Do not shoot," the new arrival pleads. "I am a B-b-british object."

His name, we learn, is Gemmy Fairley, and his bizarre fate is only one of the subjects addressed in the ambitious compass of Mr. Malouf's seventh novel. In prose of chiseled precision that is luminous and lyric, Mr. Malouf uses Gemmy not as a mirror to a troubled and enclosed world but as a prism. Through subtle bendings and refractions, a remarkable number of voices and viewpoints emerge to enrich a deceptively simple tale.

Enduring historical fiction transcends the evocation of another time and place. It allows us to share the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of its protagonists and know the pulse of a very different world that shaped them.

Mr. Malouf does even more, re-creating the mind-set of the inhabitants of two diametrically opposed worlds and then having them collide in the forlorn person of Gemmy.

It gradually emerges under the suspicious questioning of the leaders of the settlement that Gemmy was a ship's boy who was abandoned by a heartless crew. He is washed ashore and saved by a nomadic tribe of aborigines, whose lives, customs and way of looking at nature he will share for the next 16 years.

"Remembering Babylon" begins at the point where Gemmy comes out of the wilderness and the frolicking children see him as a smudged mirage in the shimmering heat. He is a figure from the darkness and the unknown, a strange ambassador from the enemy.

The best the settlers hope for in their relations with the natives is an armed truce that will last until they feel strong enough to seize more land.

With some misgivings, the Beattie family, whose children discovered Gemmy, take the boy in. "Poor bugger," the father muses. "He had got lost, and as just a bairn too. It was a duty that they owed to what they were, or claimed to be, to bring him back, if it was feasible. But was it feasible?"

It is a very complex question, and Mr. Malouf's consideration of the tantalizing predicament he has created is a gradual exposure of the intricate social dynamics of the settlement. In many ways, this community is a microcosm of the forming of Australia that was so memorably explored in Robert Hughes' "The Fatal Shore."

The settlement is no penal colony, but its mostly Scottish inhabitants have exchanged one form of punishment for another. They have left the dreadful life of Britain's factories for the incredible hardships and risks of trying to wrest a living from a land that seems as hostile as it is beautiful. In a typically exquisite description of what the settlers found, Mr. Malouf writes:

"Till they arrived no other lives had been lived here. It made the air that much thinner, harder to breathe. She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with their breath."

Everyone in the settlement and outside -- whether the land is indeed new to them or indescribably ancient -- is perhaps a victim of imperial and economic policies created thousands of miles away and far beyond their control or understanding. What begins as a frontier confrontation becomes a laboratory of human behavior under various pressures, assumptions and prejudices.

Mr. Malouf combines a clinical eye for the telling detail with a compassionate moral vision in a work that reaffirms his primacy among contemporary novelists -- and not just those writing in Australia.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Remembering Babylon"

Author: David Malouf

Publisher: Pantheon

Length, price: 200 pages, $20

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