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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
''He''s an ugly-lookin'' bloke, aren''t you, eh? Faugh! Don''t ''e
''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
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
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
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
''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
''Oh for heaven''s sake, lassie,'' her mother told her, ''dinnae
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?