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Old 10-06-2015, 05:40 PM   #1
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Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

This is the MR Literary Club selection for October 2015. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time! Guests are also always welcome.


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So, what are your thoughts on it?


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Old 10-07-2015, 12:56 PM   #2
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I've got it on order. It's been a while since I read a paper book! Looking forward to learning more about this new author to me.
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Old 10-07-2015, 04:53 PM   #3
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I'm also looking forward to it. I noticed when gathering the links for the first post that it's available as an ebook everywhere except the U.S. Anyone there wanting to buy it can etravel but yeah, otherwise paper is the option.
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Old 10-07-2015, 05:28 PM   #4
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Went over to my local library today to request it. Turns out my system does not have the book so it will be an inter-library request. That usually means at least a couple of weeks even if there is a copy currently available for checkout.
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Old 10-07-2015, 05:53 PM   #5
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There are many of his novels published as ebooks in the U.S. Just happens that this one is not. My library system did not have it too although they had other Malouf books. So,I decided to order it online, and it will be delivered today. Its journey took it through 9 cities and 4 states in the past 2 days!
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Old 10-07-2015, 06:02 PM   #6
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I read this last year as Australia's entry in my world travels. I see my library has it as an audio book as well so maybe I'll listen as a refresher. I've got so many books on the go right now. Tirra Lirra finally came in and Kidnapped and then two others. I feel overwhelmed.
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Old 10-08-2015, 03:26 PM   #7
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It is certainly an interesting choice. I'll have to wait a bit before I can get started as I'm in a similar situation to HomeInMyShoes with a number of reading projects.
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Old 10-09-2015, 02:29 PM   #8
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It is certainly an interesting choice. I'll have to wait a bit before I can get started as I'm in a similar situation to HomeInMyShoes with a number of reading projects.
I should add that one aspect of the novel that certainly would interest me is the idea of being caught in a conflict of two cultures. How Many Miles To Babylon, an Irish novel by Jennifer Johnston deals with a similar concept. In that case the conflict centres around the clash between the world of the Anglo-Irish ascendency and the lower classes who support Irish Republican values. Jennifer Johnston focuses that theme through the relationships of the central character to his mother, his father, and his Republican friend. It is set during the First World War.

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Old 10-09-2015, 06:35 PM   #9
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I'm about halfway through at the moment and enjoying rereading it, including bits that I had forgotten about. In the first few pages, it firmly establishes that fear of the unknown when Gemmy arrives in the settlement:

Quote:
The country he had broken out of was all unknown to them. Even in full sunlight it was impenetrable dark. (Page 8)
And this on the connections between the Aboriginals' language and their way of being one with the land:

Quote:
There was no way of existing in this land, or of making your way through it, unless you took into yourself, discovered on your breath, the sounds that linked up all the various parts of it and made them one. Without that you were blind, you were deaf, as he had been, at first, in their world. (Page 65)
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Old 10-09-2015, 10:57 PM   #10
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OK - starting to read it now. This was on my TBR list for next year, but I certainly don't mind bumping it up a year.
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Old 10-11-2015, 07:30 AM   #11
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Hope you enjoy it Caleb. The book repays rereading, as I was able to appreciate it all the more because I was not reading the story this time, but thinking more about the themes. Alongside the theme of language - the Aboriginal languages, the language of bees - there is also a theme about learning to see.

Australia must have been such an alien place for those first Europeans who settled here, and interestingly, it even took painters quite a long time to see what was really there in the landscape: early paintings look very European, in both the colours and the shapes of the trees for example.

I loved this passage where Jock noticed the tips of the grass he was walking through were beaded with green:

Quote:
When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brought to the scene, was a lightness in him - that was what surprised him - like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. (Page 107)
The person whose understanding is deepest is the minister, Mr Frazer, who learned from Gemmy the names and uses of various plants. He wrote in a report he gave to the Governor:

Quote:
We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous ... We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there. (Page 129-30)
Later in the same document (which of course was ignored) he wrote of the need for the settlers to change themselves rather than trying to change the land. This is a lesson we still need to learn. For example, we farm cattle and sheep rather than the animals that live here and have adapted over thousands of years to cope with the climate and to find food.

A wonderful book I think.
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Old 10-18-2015, 03:30 AM   #12
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So I finished this one.

I think the title itself is interesting for this book. I couldn't work out at first whether Babylon was referring to the England/Scotland the new settlers left behind (particularly from the perspective of Gemmy), or the earlier days of settlement remembered by Lachlan/Janet at the end of the book.

Babylon is an interesting allusion because I think the biblical city can represent more than one thing. It's sometimes thought of as a wealthy and hedonistic city, and has many references in the Bible - including the Tower of Babel. It was a fertile city and (at one stage in history) the largest in the world. So why is Malouf referring to it in the title?

Firstly, language and the interpretation of language appears several times in the novel. Gemmy's gibberish being interpreted by the town, the more subtle communication between Lachlan and Gemmy, a few places where the land itself was communicating with characters (Frazer and Jock), the subtleties of communication between Leona and several characters, the communication between Janet and the bees, Gemmy's non-verbal communication with the indigenous vistors etc..

Secondly, there's something about the "building" of the town/city/state of Queensland that seems something like an ambition of sorts. Bowen is injecting classical sensibilities and attempting to make a name for himself. England is expanding its colony with Queensland targeted to be a large and prosperous area. There seems to be a small echo here of the once-grand Babylon and a nearer parallel with the "Babylon" left behind in the United Kingdom.

Outside of the Babylon tie-in, I really liked the characterisation of the colonists. There was a constant fear in Australia: of the natives, of the wide and unknown land that they didn't understand. It had none of the bland and one-dimensional "racism" that it could have been and was more about the ways in which they approached colonisation. It wasn't about integrating themselves into a completely different environment, taking of its plenty and developing a harmony which the land and people around them. It would more about trying to transform the land into something they already knew and understood. And while they had this deeply embedded philosophy, they could only approach what was there already with fear and confusion.

Gemmy was an example of what could happen if you approached the land and its people with none of that. What about his previously life would he want to transplant? I also got a hint of other characters starting to get this message - to see what was around them without the blinkers of past experience. This is where some of the beauty of the novel lay. Unfortunately, those affected were too few to really make an impression on the fear of the others.

I think Malouf is mature enough not to focus this fear only on the indigenous tribes. He uses Gemmy as an example of how fear is nothing if not adaptable. It finds the connections it needs to take root. This is played out again in the later part of the novel when more than one person becomes the focus of such fear during the first World War. Even our neighbours, once so familiar, become strange and threatening under the right conditions.

I only gave this book 3 stars. I really enjoyed the prose and the various messages that I could explore. However, I found it fairly ordinary as a story. The switching of perspectives meant that there were several tales told here, but few if any ever felt resolved in any way. Some seemed incidental like that of George Abbott and many seemed to peter out as if forgotten.

I'm glad I read it though as it took a really interesting perspective on the colonisation of Australia.
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Old 10-19-2015, 04:07 AM   #13
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I can't agree with you about the early colonists not being racist, Caleb. They not only feared the Aboriginal people, but they killed them, mostly with impunity. Remember the reference to a "dispersal" (page 196 of my paperback copy) in the last chapter - "Too slight an affair to be called a massacre". If you read the history of early settlement, there are many references to "dispersals", the code word for killing groups of people.

They were a threat and not considered to be human, so could be killed without concern.
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Old 10-19-2015, 07:10 AM   #14
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I can't agree with you about the early colonists not being racist, Caleb. They not only feared the Aboriginal people, but they killed them, mostly with impunity. Remember the reference to a "dispersal" (page 196 of my paperback copy) in the last chapter - "Too slight an affair to be called a massacre". If you read the history of early settlement, there are many references to "dispersals", the code word for killing groups of people.

They were a threat and not considered to be human, so could be killed without concern.
I didn't say they weren't racists, I said that the racism wasn't one-dimensional in the story. It's much more interesting that way. Instead of focusing on racism, which would have been pretty boring (early white settlers were racist - DUH), Malouf focused on where some of it was coming from. I liked this look into the psyche of early settlers and how that fear of something "other" affected them in more than just the most obvious ways. I think the fear of the indigenous people, the fear of Gemmy and the fear of Jock, shows the strange mutation of fear like some bizarre collateral damage.

Then the fear of Janet, the German(?), and then Lachlan was like this repeating history of fear, such that you believe nothing has really changed. And we just keep moving on letting that fear of difference play the same record.

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Old 10-19-2015, 09:41 AM   #15
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Sorry Caleb, I misunderstood your point. Thanks for explaining.
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