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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: DAVID MALOUF 'REMEMBERING BABYLON' : The Tower of Babble

November 13, 1994|ANNETTE SMITH | Annette Smith, a fiction prize judge, is a professor at Caltech

One day, in the middle of the last century, when white settlement was crawling, tentatively, up the coast of Queensland, three children were stopped in their games by the sight of a strange "thing" in the nearby swamps: perhaps "a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another . . . had been changed into a bird, but only halfway, and now, neither one thing nor the other, was hopping and flapping towards them out of a world . . . that was the abode of everything savage and fearsome . . . and of all that belonged to the Absolute Dark."

What they had taken for a lone aborigine raider turns out to be Gemmy Fairly, a "black white" with hair as blond as theirs. As the creature stands, scarecrow-like at the top of the boundary fence, facing a toy gun, he shouts "Do not shoot. . . . I am a B-b-british object!" One mark of a great novel, it might be said, is that its totality be already contained in its first few paragraphs, and such is certainly the case for "Remembering Babylon," this year's winner of the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. In its first two pages alone, one understands that the book will be about boundaries, about encountering the Other, about metamorphosis and (through Gemmy Fairly's unwittingly accurate statement) about language.

David Malouf begins with this primal scene of the boundary fence--a fragile line between the white settlers and a continent so vast that the silence, when the hissing of the lamp dies out, engulfs them in the unknown. His simple plot covers the two years spent by Gemmy with the white Scottish community (following 16 spent with the aborigines), the various responses to him (from total acceptance to total rejection and nuances in between), the subtle changes in relationships precipitated by his presence, and finally his mysterious disappearance and a postcript reuniting two of the main protagonists, many years older and wiser. This plot, which resembles the story of Francois Truffaut's "Wild Child" and of Alfred Kroeber's Ishi in "Two Worlds," is a recurrent one in Malouf's work, testifying to his fascination with otherness and transformation. An Australian poet and novelist, he has previously published a fictionalized biography of Ovid, "An Imaginary Life," in which Ovid befriends a wild child who, later during his exile in a decaying, rust-brown port town, will seem to him like a messenger, possibly a god.

With Gemmy as a catalyst, many boundaries are redefined in "Remembering Babylon," particularly those between races. The anti-colonial and racial themes are handled with a concern for historical and individual complexity. The ghostlike aborigines looming outside the limits of the settlement constantly remind us that the whites are encroaching onto native territory. Nevertheless, Malouf legitimizes the settlers' claim to a land disputed foot by foot to the wilderness and empathizes with their need to cling to the only identity they know. If Gemmy, "this mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness," has changed his identity, not to mention skin color and (due to eroded teeth) face structure, "could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It." The very vagueness of the pronoun connotes the essential nature of that "it."

In any case, Malouf's plea for tolerance goes beyond the racial context. While he finely satirizes empire builders in the person of Governor Lord Bowen and vividly evokes the hostility against Gemmy rampant in part of the community, he shows that Gemmy, as a rat-catcher's slave-boy in London, was indeed a "British object" long before his adoption by a native clan.

The Babylon in the title evokes therefore not only a parallel between the Israelites' captivity after the fall of Jerusalem and the colonists' nostalgia and isolation, but also the Tower of Babel, biblical site of the separation of languages and nations. Malouf's novel testifies all along to the confusion of languages. It demonstrates the demonic nature of words, both their inadequacy and destructive power and their creative ones, as Gemmy's past and his new identity take form, however spuriously, on records kept by a minister and schoolmaster.

Professors of literature and writers will, perhaps, read in this chapter not only an allegory of literature but also an allegory of the passage from oral to written culture, as Gemmy sniffs the sheets of paper on which his life has been inscribed. Finally, Malouf's prose itself provides a subtle allegory on the separation of languages, for its ceremonial, slightly rugged unfolding seems to echo faintly some ancient biblical language that would have been lost forever with the Babel episode.

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