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  • Written by David Malouf
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Remembering Babylon

A Novel

Written by David MaloufAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Malouf

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Winner of the IMPAC Award and Booker Prize nominee

In this rich and compelling novel, written in language of astonishing poise and resonance, one of Australia's greatest living writers gives and immensely powerful vision of human differences and eternal divisions.  In the mid-1840s a thirteen-year-old British cabin boy, Gemmy Fairley, is cast ashore in the far north of Australia and taken in by aborigines. Sixteen years later he moves back into the world of Europeans, among hopeful yet terrified settlers who are staking out their small patch of home in an alien place. To them, Gemmy stands as a different kind of challenge: he is a force that at once fascinates and repels. His own identity in this new world is as unsettling to him as the knowledge he brings to others of the savage, the aboriginal.

"Breathtaking...To read this remarkable book is to remember Babylon well, whether you think you've been there or not."
--The New York Times Book Review



ONE DAY IN the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary. They were two little girls in patched gingham and a boy, their cousin, in short pants and braces, all three barefooted farm children not easily scared.

They had little opportunity for play but had been engaged for the past hour in a game of the boy's devising: the paddock, all clay-packed stones and ant trails, was a forest in Russia-they were hunters on the track of wolves.

The boy had elaborated this scrap of make-believe out of a story in the fourth grade Reader; he was lost in it. Cold air burned his nostrils, snow squeaked underfoot; the gun he carried, a good sized stick, hung heavy on his arm. But the girls, especially Janet, who was older than he was and half a head taller, were bored. They had no experience of snow, and wolves did not interest them. They complained and dawdled and he had to exert all his gift for fantasy, his will too, which was stubborn, to keep them in the game.

They had a blue kelpie with them. He bounced along with his tongue lolling, excited by the boy's solemn concentration but puzzled too that he could get no sense of what they were after: the idea of wolf had not been transmitted to him. He danced around the little party, sometimes in front, sometimes to the side, sniffing close to the earth, raising his moist eyes in hope of instruction, and every now and then, since he was young and easily distracted, bounding away after the clippered insects that sprang up as they approached, or a grasshopper that rose with a ponderous whirring and rolled sideways from his jaws. Then suddenly he did get the scent. With a yelp of pure delight he shot off in the direction of their boundary fence, and the children, all three, turned away to see what he had found.

Lachlan Beattie felt the snow melt at his feet. He heard a faint far-off rushing, like wind rolling down a tunnel, and it took him a moment to understand that it was coming from inside him.

In the intense heat that made everything you looked at warp and glare, a fragment of ti-tree swamp, some bit of the land over there that was forbidden to them, had detached itself from the band of grey that made up the far side of the swamp, and in a shape more like a watery, heat-struck mirage than a thing of substance, elongated and airily indistinct, was bowling, leaping, flying towards them.

A black! That was the boy's first thought. We're being raided by blacks. After so many false alarms it had come.

The two little girls stood spellbound. They had given a gasp, one sharp intake of breath, then forgotten to breathe out. The boy too was struck but had begun to recover. Though he was very pale about the mouth, he did what his manhood required him to do. Holding fast to the stick, he stepped resolutely in front.

But it wasn't a raid, there was just one of them; and the thing, as far as he could make it out through the sweat in his eyes and its flamelike flickering, was not even, maybe, human. The stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints, suggested a wounded waterbird, a brolga, or a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another, all spells and curses, 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 over there, beyond the no-man's-land of the swamp, that was the abode of everything savage and fearsome, and since it lay so far beyond experience, not just their own but their parents' too, of nightmare rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark.

A bit of blue rag was at its middle from which sleeves hung down. They swung and signalled. But the sticks of arms above its head were also signalling, or beating off flies, or licks of invisible flame. Ah, that was it. It was a scarecrow that had somehow caught the spark of life, got down from its pole, and now, in a raggedy, rough-headed way, was stumbling about over the blazing earth, its leathery face scorched black, but with hair, they saw, as it bore down upon them, as sun-bleached and pale-straw coloured as their own.

Whatever it was, it was the boy's intention to confront it. Very sturdy and purposeful, two paces in front of his cousins, though it might have been a hundred yards in the tremendous isolation he felt, and with a belief in the power of the weapon he held that he knew was impossible and might not endure, he pushed the stick into his shoulder and took his stance.

The creature, almost upon them now and with Flash at its heels, came to a halt, gave a kind of squawk, and leaping up onto the top rail of the fence, hung there, its arms outflung as if preparing for flight. Then the ragged mouth gapped.

'Do not shoot,' it shouted. 'I am a B-b-british object!'

It was a white man, though there was no way you could have known it from his look. He had the mangy, half-starved look of a black, and when, with a cry, he lost his grip on the rail and came tumbling at their feet, the smell of one too, like dead swamp-water; and must have been as astonished as they were by the words that had jumped out of his mouth because he could find no more of them. He gaped, grinned, rubbed his side, winced, cast his eyes about in a hopeless way, and when he found speech again it was a complaint, against himself perhaps, in some whining blackfeller's lingo.

The boy was incensed. The idea of a language he did not know scared him. He thought that if he allowed the man to go on using it, he would see how weak they were and get the advantage of them. He jerked the stick in the direction of the man's heart. 'Stop that,' he yelled. 'Just steik yur mooth.'

The man, responding to the truculence of the boy's tone, began to crawl about with his nose in the dust. The boy relaxed-That's better, he thought-and even Flash, seeing now that the fellow was prepared to be docile, stopped yapping and began to tongue the stranger's knees.

The man was not keen on it. With a childish whimper he began to hop about, trying to shake the dog off. Lachlan, disturbed and a little disgusted by this display of unmanliness but eager to show that he could be a generous victor, as well as a stern one, called Flash off. 'Ge on wi' ye,' he told the fellow in as gruff a voice as he could manage, and soon had his prisoner going, but at a hobbling gait-one of his legs was shorter than the other. He ordered his cousins to keep back, and in the glow of his new-found mastery they let themselves be led.

After a time the man began to grunt, then to gabble, as if in protest, but when Lachlan put the stick into his spine, moved on faster, producing sounds of such eager submissiveness that the boy's heart swelled. He had a powerful sense of the springing of his torso from the roots of his belly. He had known nothing like this! He was bringing a prisoner in. Armed with nothing, too, but his own presumptuous daring and the power of make-believe.

So the little procession made its way to where the girls' father was ringbarking in the gully below their hut.

An hour later news of the affair had spread all through the settlement. A crowd had gathered to see this specimen of-of what? What was he?

They stood in the heat, which was overpowering at this time of the day, and stared.

Distractions were unusual up here; even the Syrian pedlar did not trouble to come so far. They were isolated, at the end of the line.

Apart from their scattered holdings, the largest of which was forty acres, there was nothing to the settlement but a store and post office of unpainted weatherboard, with a verandah and a dog in front of it that was permanently asleep but if kicked would shift itself, walk five steps, then flop.

Opposite the store was a corrugated iron shack, a shantypub, unlicensed as yet, with hitching posts and a hollowed log that served as a trough.

The area between, the open space where they now stood, was part of a road perhaps, since horses and carts went back and forth upon it, and women in sunbonnets, and barefoot youths who, with nothing to do in the evening, came to sit with their feet up on the rails of the verandah and tell raw jokes, practise their spitting, and flick cigarette butts with a hiss into the trough. It was not yet a street, and had no name.

The nearest named place, Bowen, was twelve miles off, but the twelve miles meant that they were only lightly connected to it, and even more lightly to what it was connected to: the figure in an official uniform who had given it his name and the Crown he represented, which held them all, a whole continent, in its grip.

'He's an ugly-lookin' bloke, aren't you, eh? Faugh! Don't 'e stink, but!'

'Dumb. I reckon 'e's dumb.'

'No he's no'! He spoke t' me. Don't shoot, he said, didn' ye, eh? Don't shoot! Don't shoot!'

The man, recognising the words as his own, showed his blackened teeth, which were ground down to the stumps, and did a little lopsided dance, then looked foolish.

'Don't shoot,' the boy repeated, and held the stick up to his shoulder. One of the smaller children laughed.

'Ah'm the wan he kens,' the boy repeated. He was determined to keep hold of the bit of glory he had won. 'Don't you, eh? Eh? Ah'm the wan.' With a boisterous persistence that kept him very nearly breathless, he scampered off to collar newcomers, but always dashed back to be at the man's side, at the centre of their gaze.

For a moment back there, seeing himself as these grownups might see him, a mere kid, a twelve-year-old and small for his age, he had felt a wave of anxiety at how shaky his power might be. But he'd recovered-all his recoveries were like this, as quick as the fits of despondency he fell into-and was fired once more with the excitement of the thing. The air crackled around him. He shone. Over and over, in words that each time he repeated them made him see the event, and himself too, in a light more vivid, more startling, he told how it had happened: how the fellow had come flying at the fence 'as if an airmy o' fiends were aifter him', and when he leapt up onto the rail, his words.

The words were what mattered most to the boy. By changing the stick he held into what his gesture had claimed for it, they had changed him too, and he did not want, now, to change back. So long as he kept talking, he thought, and the others listened, he would not.

Janet McIvor, who had also been there and seen all that occurred, though no one seemed interested in her version, was surprised that he was allowed to get away with it; their father wasn't always so easy. But he and their mother seemed as gawpingly awe-struck as the rest. Neither of them had made the least move to bring him down.

The fact was that the event itself, which was so unusual and unexpected, had made the boy, since he claimed so large a part in it, as strange almost to their customary view of him as the half-caste or runaway. Something impressive and mysterious set the two figures, Lachlan Beattie as much as the straw-topped half-naked savage, in a dimension where they appeared unreachable. So the boy simply had his way till his aunt, who had never seen him in such a state, darting this way and that like an actor on a stage, out of a fear that he might be about to explode under her very eyes, told him for heaven's sake to cool down, and his uncle, woken as if from a dream, stepped in and took a hand to him.

He looked about him, open-eyed at last, rubbed the side of his head where his uncle's hand had come down, and was again just a wiry twelve-year-old. The runaway, who might, they now thought, be some sort of simpleton, was alarmed at this outburst and began to moan.

'Me and Meg found him, just as much as Lachlan,' Janet McIvor put in, seizing her opportunity, but no one paid heed. 'And anyway, it was Flash.'

'Oh for heaven's sake, lassie,' her mother told her, 'dinnae you start.'

Meanwhile the man stood waiting. For what?

For one of them to start something.

But where could you start with an odd, unsettled fellow who, beyond what the boy Lachlan had heard him shout, had not a word you could make sense of in the English tongue; a pathetic, muddy-eyed, misshapen fellow, all fidgets, who seemed amazed by them-as if they were the curiosities here-and kept laughing and blinking.

He was a man who had suffered a good deal of damage. There were scorch marks on his chest and arms where he had rolled into a camp fire, and signs that he had, at one time or another, taken a fair bit of knocking about. One of his eyebrows was missing. Strange how unimportant eyebrows can be, so long as there are two of them. It gave his face a smudged appearance. He had the baffled, half-expectant look of a mongrel that has been often whipped but still turns to the world, out of some fund of foolish expectancy, as a source of scraps as well as torments.

His joints were swollen and one leg was shorter than the other and a little twisted. When he got excited he jerked about as if he was being worked by strings, one or two of which had snapped. He screwed his face up, grinned, looked interested, then, in a lapse of courage or concentration, went mute and glanced about as if he did not know, suddenly, how he had got there or where he was.

The country he had broken out of was all unknown to them. Even in full sunlight it was impenetrably dark.

To the north, beginning with the last fenced paddock, lay swamp country, bird-haunted marshes; then, where the great spine of the Dividing Range rose in ridges and shoals of mist, rainforest broken by sluggish streams.
David Malouf

About David Malouf

David Malouf - Remembering Babylon

Photo © Conrad Del Villar

David Malouf is the author of eleven novels, as well as bountiful collections of stories, poetry and opera libretti. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Prix Femina Étranger and the Australia-Asia Literary Award; he has also been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Australia.

Praise | Awards


"A dazzling novel...The story has moments of such high intensity that they remain scorched in memory. As the story moves forward to its conclusion, we go unwillingly with it, not wanting this book, with the wisdom it contains, to stop speaking to us."
--The Toronto Star

"Remembering Babylon is another rare chance to read a work by one of the few contemporary novelists who examines our constantly battered humanity and again and again brings out its lingering beauty."
--The Globe and Mail

"There are passages of aching beauty in Remembering Babylon, and passages of shocking degradation. Mr. Malouf has written a wonderfully wise and moving novel, a novel that turns the history and mythic past of Australia into a dazzling fable of human hope and imperfection."
--The New York Times


WINNER 1996 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
FINALIST 1993 Man Booker Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of David Malouf's Remembering Babylon. We hope they will aid your understanding of a novel that presents readers with the verbal energy of a prose poem (and with some of the finest nature writing since D. H. Lawrence's), a psychological discernment worthy of Virginia Woolf, and the thematic resonance of an Australian Genesis.

About the Guide

In the case of Remembering Babylon, the myth is that of the settling of Australia and of the fateful contact between white Europeans and black aborigines. That contact--and all its tragic repercussions and missed possibilities--is represented by the sudden appearance, in an unnamed Queensland settlement in the 1840s, of Gemmy Fairley, an English castaway who was rescued by aborigines and has lived among them for sixteen years before crossing into the territory claimed by his countrymen. With his sun-blackened face and straw-white hair, his twitching gait and few, inarticulate scraps of English, Gemmy is a confusing--and increasingly suspicious--figure to his new hosts. On a practical level, some settlers fear that Gemmy is a spy sent by the aborigines, who are thought to have massacred settlers elsewhere in the new territory. But he also represents the dread possibility that civilization, language--whiteness itself--are qualities as provisional as their farms and tumbledown shacks. Looking at Gemmy, they find themselves wondering, "Could you lose it? Not just language but it. It." [p. 40]In time these suspicions prove too great, the gulf between cultures too insurmountable: Gemmy is beaten and driven away. His few allies, the Scots farmer Jock McIvor, his nephew Lachlan Beattie, his elder daughter Janet, and the botanizing Reverend Frazer, are permanently estranged from their community--and indeed, from their ingenuous former selves. In that outcome, David Malouf sees a fall from grace that has implicated succeeding generations of European Australians, a loss of the potential self embodied in this "in-between creature" [p. 28] who was neither wholly white nor wholly black but "a true child of the place as it will one day be." [p. 132] Drawing on the true story of Gemmy Morril, Malouf has created a haunting, melancholy, and stunningly written parable of the limits of imagination and the intractibility of human nature, of the moment in which two peoples met on the ground of a new world--and one of them turned away.

About the Author

David Malouf has written that he was "born and grew up in Edwardian England, a fact that has somehow got itself recorded in the real world as Brisbane, Australia, in 1934." The son of a Lebanese Christian and an English Jew of Portuguese descent, he came of age at a time when Australia patterned itself entirely on English lines: "I lived on the beach, surfing, swimming, active, in a place with a particular kind of light, a particular kind of moisture in the air, a particular sky. Everything local belonged to the sensory world. But everything cultural was English. Until 20 or 30 years ago everyone was still referring to England as 'home.'" That paradox has preoccupied much of Malouf's fiction, which in turn has inspired two generations of Australian writers. Known as a poet and librettist as well as a novelist, Malouf is the author of 14 books, including An Imaginary Life, Fly Away Peter, Harland's Half Acre, Antipodes, and the international bestseller The Great World. His work has been awarded the Pascall Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the Age Book of the Year Award, the New South Wales and Victorian Premier's Award in Australia, along with the Commonwealth Prize and France's Prix Femina Etranger. Remembering Babylon was nominated for the 1993 Booker Prize. David Malouf lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Discussion Guides

1. Malouf tells his story in an intermittent and at times circuitous manner. Typically, he reports the essentials of an incident, traces its repercussions through different witnesses, and then returns to fill in its missing details--particularly, the actions and motivations of his central character. Where else does Malouf employ this narrative strategy? What does he accomplish by telling his story from shifting points of view and by withholding critical revelations?

2. In contrast to his use of multiple points of view, the author employs a stable and somewhat distanced narrative voice. That voice can express profound and often lyrical insights into each of the novel's characters, yet it belongs to none of them. How does the tension between a fixed, omniscient voice and shifting, limited points of view affect your perception of the novel's events?

3. Lachlan and his cousins first encounter Gemmy while pretending to hunt wolves on the Russian steppes. What irony is implicit in this game? Where else in Remembering Babylon do characters behave as though they were somewhere other than the Queensland bush? What are the consequences of this tendency?

4. Lachlan "captures" Gemmy with an imaginary weapon, a stick masquerading as a gun. Why does Gemmy surrender? What power does he recognize in this object and in the gesture that animates it? Where else in Remembering Babylon do simple objects acquire magical power?

5. To the children, the landscape from which Gemmy emerges is "the abode of everything savage and fearsome, and since it lay so far beyond experience, not just their own but their parents' too, of nightmare, rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark." [p. 3] How is this initial description amplified or altered in the course of the novel? At what moments does the landscape seem to physically permeate its inhabitants, as, for example, on page 18, where Abbot feels his blood beating in unison with the shrilling of insects in the bush?

6. How do Gemmy and his aboriginal rescuers view the same landscape? What language does Malouf use to convey their differing perceptions? Which vision of the land triumphs by the novel's climax? At what points--and through what agency--do some of the novel's English characters come to see the Australian terrain as Gemmy does?

7. Gemmy's first words are "Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object!" [p. 3] What does it mean to be an object rather than a subject? What meanings accrue to this phrase in light of Gemmy's experience as a child in England--and as a man-child in a white settlement in Australia?

8. Gemmy returns to his countrymen at a certain moment in Australian history, at a time when settlement in Queensland has advanced only halfway up the coast and many villages--including the one in which the action unfolds--are still unnamed. How has Australia changed by the novel's climax? What is the implied relation between Gemmy's fate and the progress of Australian history?

9. The fact that Gemmy is first seen balanced precariously on a fence is indicative of his status as an "in-between creature" [p. 28], poised between European and aboriginal identities. How does Gemmy's treatment by the aborigines both parallel and differ from his treatment by Englishmen? How does Gemmy view himself? What other hybrids or transitions does he embody?

10. Language plays a critical role within this novel, beginning with Gemmy's sense that the words in which Abbot transcribes his story contain "the whole of what he was" [p. 20]. At what other points in the book does the spoken or written word act as a magical shorthand, one that not only connotes but invokes and transforms reality? How does Malouf's prose style mirror this effect? How does the novel's sense of language parallel its vision of objects and landscape?

11. It is tempting to see Gemmy as an innocent. But has Gemmy merely stumbled into colonial territory or has he come there with a purpose--and, if so, what is it? Is your earlier sense of Gemmy altered by the discovery that, as a boy in England, he may have killed his master?

12. Behind every imposture lies a second self. In Gemmy's case, that other self is the one that lies dormant during his life with the aborigines and that first surfaces when he tastes the mash that Ellen McIvor is throwing to her chickens [p. 31]. How does Malouf describe the interplay between his characters' different selves? Which of his characters realize their inner selves by the novel's end?

13. In the course of Remembering Babylon, certain characters change, not only in relation to Gemmy, but in relation to each other. Where, and in whom, do these changes occur? To what extent is Gemmy the cause of these transformations?

14. Repetition is an essential part of this novel's structure. It is not just that certain incidents--Gemmy's fall from the fence, his meeting with the aborigines--are narrated from different points of view. In Remembering Babylon episodes and objects have a way of doubling. What is the effect of these multiplications? How do they constitute a cyclical counterpoint to the linear progression of the narrative?

15. By the simple fact of his presence, Gemmy divides his hosts into two camps: those who tolerate and in time love him, and those who are determined to drive him away. What is it that distinguishes Gemmy's protectors from his tormentors? What qualities do the two groups have in common?

16. Although Malouf tells his story from multiple points of view and tells us much about characters as diverse as a thirteen-year-old boy, a middle-aged farm wife, and an otherworldly parson, he leaves his aboriginal characters enigmas. We know them only through Gemmy, who has lived among them but is not entirely of them. Why might Malouf have chosen to do this? What is the effect of this gap in the novel's psychological fabric?

17. Nature is one of this novel's central mysteries, not only in the form of the land, with its strange life-forms and reversed seasons, but in its human aspect. The Reverend Frazer describes Gemmy as someone who "has crossed the boundaries of his given nature." [p. 132] What vision of human nature does Remembering Babylon present? What is the implied relationship between human nature and the natural world?

18. What is the "Babylon" of this novel's title? What "Jerusalem" does Malouf suggest as its counterpart?

Suggested Readings

Thomas Berger, Little Big Man; Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert; Jorge Luis Borges, "The Captive," in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-69; Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines; J. M. Coetzee, Foe; Jill Ker Conway, The Road From Coorain; Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America; Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore; D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo; James V. Marshall, Walkabout; Peter Matthiessen, At Play in the Fields of the Lord; Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Patrick White, Voss, The Tree of Man.

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