Challenging or Naturalizing Ideas about Australia
In the grace period of Australia’s colonial development, many cultural assumptions and ideas were created in response to the increase of British immigration. Australia was a home away from home, a land of opportunity and adventure that allowed the English populace ‘freedom’ from the almost oppressive presence of the British Empire. David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, the story of a nameless white settlement in Northern Queensland, presents a perspective often seen in literary texts of this nature, that being the birth of nationhood and the true foundations of Australian culture as we know it. The assumptions many have of what nineteenth century Australia was like and what has since been retained and is evident in the modern-day culture, has been clearly referenced and explored in Remembering Babylon. The reader can see their suspicions, ideas and assumptions challenged and naturalized in equal measure.
As most would assume, any text exploring the nature of the nineteenth century would be expected to have the heavy presence of religion hanging over the characters and story arc. It’s no secret that the British Empire, and most of the Euro-centric world, were founded on the backs of beliefs originating from Biblical texts and the Roman Catholic Church. For the most part, the narrative takes place in a colony of predominantly white citizens, and a key idea about Australia would be that religion heavily features in day-to-day life. However, Malouf hardly brushes upon religious queries as he explores the true nature of the people who have settled the land. Even a character that should be heavily associated with the church, this being the minister Mr Frazer, does not seem to be overtly concerned over any religious matters or expectations. Mr Frazer is presented as a man of science first and a man of God second. He is shown to feel most at home in the summer woods of the surrounding area. He feels despondent in the world of men, only feeling his true purpose arise as a “night wanderer,” one that explores “the life of creatures that were abroad, as he was, while the human world slept.” His identity as the sole religious figure in the town plays second fiddle to the part of himself that detaches from his faith, except that which he puts in his botanizing, “his one sure refuge.” One would expect a man of God to seek refuge in the embrace of the Lord, as religious texts guide the faithful to do. However, Mr Frazer, no matter how dedicated to God he might appear to be in the public’s eye, the true calling he seeks is in the night creatures and the night flowering plants that “touch on his hidden nature.” Mr Frazer challenges the idea that religion is predominant in Australia. His botanical pursuits and the manner in which he critically evaluates the world, suggests that while being present in Church is expected, it is not a key part of Australian culture now, or ever.
Before Australia developed ideas of independence and estrangement from the British ‘Motherland,’ many British immigrants thought of Australia as a home away from home. A land, though different in ecosystem and environment, to be molded into a second England, no different from the first. Malouf challenges this belief entirely, and while he explains that the appearance of the country can be changed on a superficial level, he acknowledges that the power in the landscape itself, is absolute and can never truly be shifted or diverted into something it is not. The influence the land has over the white settlers and their way of life is evident as the third-person point-of-view shifts to focus on a particular character and their relation with their new home. It is Janet who first takes a moment of solemnity with the land. She sits underneath a tree, picking at a scab. When the hard crust lifts, she is amazed to find “a colour she had never seen before, and another skin, lustrous as a pearl. A delicate pink, it might have belonged to some other creature altogether.” This is a small token of what is to come for Janet and a symbolic premonition of her future life. The crusted, hard shell of the scab is her preconceived English notions of sensibility and proprietary. The picking of the scab, -which in itself defies the notion of the well-mannered and respectable English lady – reveals new skin, a new life that Janet has only a glimpse at and she know it is something precious and unique. With this new “secret skin,” she explores the world around her, and she begins to notice the world waking up in front of her new eyes. “All the velvety grass heads blaze up, haloed with gold,” and she feels a sensation of elation. As the passage goes on, Malouf begins to utilize delicate personification, giving her surroundings a living, breathing life force that swells and pulses around her. The “tattered ribbon” bark of the trees is replaced by “smooth skin of the palest green, streaked with orange and what seemed like the powdery redness of blood.” In this moment, Janet – and the reader – realize that the land she takes for granted is an entity in itself, something in touch with its own secret self. The Australian landscape, while passive in a traditional sense, is a powerful presence throughout the novel and something that shapes and changes the characters of Remembering Babylon. It is through this personification that the reader realizes that Australia is not a ‘home away from home,’ but it’s own country, separate and different and nothing like Mother England for the colonists who breath and work the land.
White settlement in Australia is, and always will be, the catalyst of overarching social discord. The British Empire disturbed a land, and culture 50 000 years in the making, setting in motion a series of events that have lead to the razing of a civilization, a loss of identity and the genocide of an entire continent. This is the basis of assumption Malouf relies upon as he explores themes of racism and the marginalization of an entire people. The reader enters the novel with an idea of Australia’s discordant past and an expectation that the depiction of racist and discriminatory characters will occur. The notion of ‘the Other,’ is a common theme when referring to post-colonial texts. While Gemmy was not born an Aborigine, his sixteen years living amongst the Northern Queensland tribe have physically – and ideologically – changed Gemmy into a fence sitter, both metaphorically and literally, as he is introduced as something perched on a fence bordering the settlement. Gemmy is a bridge between two conflicting groups of people, a “white black man” regarded as an outside twice over. Unfortunately, to the more close-minded individuals of the settlement, he acts, thinks and looks enough like “one of Them” to incite a call for violence committed against him. When Gemmy is taken by “a crowd of bodiless whispers” and savagely beaten by a group of men who had decided to take action against him, he cannot possibly hope to identify them and must therefore assume that these others, “all knuckled hands and shoulders and rough heads and breaths,” could be anyone and therefore everyone in the settlement. This translates as a depiction of the ceaseless violence rampant in nineteenth century Australia. No laws or rules were set in issues regarding ‘dealing with the Natives,’ essentially creating an enabling environment where no citizen of European descent would be punished for crimes later regarded as inexcusable. Ideas on the racist nature of Australian culture, both then and now, are naturalized in texts like Remembering Babylon. Texts that explore ideologies of past Australians can neither hide nor erase what was done to the Aboriginal people and what has carried over into the modern-day cultural identity of Australia. In this way, Remembering Babylon naturalizes ideas and assumptions regarding the rampant racism in current, and past, Australia.
As nationhood in a country grows stronger and the population grows larger, the avoidance of stereotypes, assumptions and ideas about the country become impossible. In this respect, the depiction of nineteenth century Australia in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon provides an interesting perspective on the state of post-colonial Australia and the beliefs and ideas the English settlers had on their ‘new home.’ While not an entirely accurate rendition of the time, as it was published in 1993, almost an entire 150 years after the events supposedly take place, with the perspective Malouf provides, the reader can relatively accurately have their ideas about Australia in that time period either challenged or naturalized. Remembering Babylon details key themes and assumptions associated with the time, including connotations of a religion’s lack of power and influence in the Australian lifestyle, the acceptance of the unchanging nature of the landscape itself and of course, the manifestation of racism, whether it be casual or not, in the Australian cultural identity both past and present.