Remembering Babylon was one of those books recommended with great enthusiasm back in high school. It was recommended by my then literature teacher. I thanked her profusely for the recommendation, and there it sat, gathering dust on the shelves.
It was perhaps this literary relationship that put me off – I wanted a mindless read, something fantastical! Like the fantasy I had been enamoured with at the time.
Never would I have known that Remembering Babylon was the exact book I was looking for. Unlike the speculative fiction I was so familiar – Remembering Babylon was born from the magic of Australian history.
Set in the mid-nineteenth century, it is the story of a boy, one Gemmy Fairley – who washed ashore on the Queensland coast at the tender age of thirteen. Eager to survive, he was raised by the local Aboriginals. There he remained until he was a grown man. Fascinated by the white settlers, he re-emerged from the bush – and entered into a life a stranger to everyone.
Curious to the aboriginals who raised him, and savage to the Europeans who now looked at him with disgust.
This encounter of course, is often discussed in Australian fiction. The what if scenario – if everything could have happened differently. Often overlooked in Australian history, is a curious incident that did in fact happen. William Buckey, an escaped convict, fled into the Australian bush in 1803. At the age of twenty-three, he happened upon a spear that marked the grave of the recently – which he used as a walking stick. Encountering a small tribe, that believed him to be the returned spirit of the dead (he was pale, sickly, and couldn’t speak their language), they took him in and treated him with affection.
The Life and Adventures of William Buckley by John Morgan, published in 1852 is now regarded as consistent with ‘modern understandings of aboriginal social life.’ It is perhaps the only historical text of its kind – and oft-ignored until only recent times.
From here it could be inferred that all Australian tales of native meets settler arrived.
Malouf’s account though is a step beyond. His prose is breathtaking, and he brings the Australian bush – the Australian aboriginals to life. Unlike William Buckley before him, he was taken in “guardedly; in the droll, half-apprehensive way that is proper to an in-between creature.”
This continued until he entered the settlement, where
“He was running to prove that all that separated him from them was the ground that could be covered. He gave no consideration to what might happen when he arrived.”
Forced to fight for his own survival, and separated by his skin on one side, and ‘civilisation’ on the other – it becomes all too clear that there was far more than ground to be covered.
Remembering Babylon was a beautiful narrative. An easy read. A mere 182 pages I would recommend it to anyone who has so much as a passing interesting in ethnic history, Australia and how it relates to the world we live in today.
Explore your fiction.
And love your Reality.