When a “white black man” suddenly appears in their midst, a nascent isolated north Australian settlement is suddenly confronted with fears of the strange and the unknown – of the indigenous communities beyond the cleared lands and the harsh, inhospitable land itself.
Uprooted, already a world away from the drudgery of their backgrounds, the small community live on the edge. To say they feel vulnerable is an understatement, living as they do “at the end of the line” in a wild, open country of “illimitable night”. It’s a long way from the mines of Scotland and northern England.
Into this fragility and fear walks “a parody of a white man” – a man who, as a young urchin 16 years earlier, had been cast adrift from his ship. Washed ashore, Gemmy Fairley survives and attached himself to a local group of aborigines where he had no contact with Europeans – until now.
His background is reconstructed as best as possible – but little shared language remains. Initially the centre of curiosity, the physically awkward Gemmy quickly becomes something mysterious and threatening, a “mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness”, neither European nor aborigine.
Whilst Gemmy himself struggles with his own identity, most of the menfolk decide for him. If things go inexplicably wrong, Gemmy is immediately suspected. Fear and distrust feed each other. Two elders visit Gemmy “in broad daylight”. This act of perceived impertinence gains sinister momentum when the only witness spreads a (fictional) rumour of the handing over of a large stone.
“And the stone, once launched, had a life of its own. It flew in all directions, developed a capacity to multiply, accelerate, leave wounds; and the wounds were real even if the stone were not. He [McKillop, the witness] would make them recognise it at last, as proof of the non-existence of that other, heavier and far more fatal thing, an imagination.”
Rifts appear in the community as paranoia and insecurities develop – the decent McIvors who first offer shelter to Gemmy are marginalised, friendships between the men are put to the test. Malouf captures the pioneering spirit of the first settlement of Australia – along with the fears and uncertainties. Life here is unquestionably hard – and “the white black man” represents all that is unknown and uncertain and is therefore seen as a threat to the balance of their world.
As the minister’s wife says to her husband:
“’I know you believe there is no harm in the man,’ she tells him, ‘and I’m sure you are right. There is none. But people are afraid. There is harm in that… It’s true there’s no harm in him, but he is a danger just the same.”
The profound and deeply moving Remembering Babylon is a massive achievement in a relatively short novel (182 pages) by one of Australia’s best novelists. It lost out to the rather ordinary Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for the 1993 Booker Prize and Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife in the 1994 Miles Franklin Award but collected the inaugural IMPAC International Literary Award – one of the world’s richest – in 1996.