To be discussed: One of Remembering Babylon ’s key motifs is the boundary – the boundary fence, boundaries of the mind, and real and imagined cultural boundaries. Discuss this statement with references to both the novel and secondary sources of literature.
Boundaries in David Malouf's Remembering Babylon
Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection. This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species. (Wikipedia: On the Origin of Species)
The process of natural selection is very common to us today. However in the time David Malouf's Remembering Babylon takes place, Darwin's Origin of Species is not very widespread yet and the naturalist movement in general is only at its beginning. According to the theory of natural selection people have to “adapt to their environments“, which of course sounds very reasonable. If we look back at the 1840's in Australia when Gemmy Fairley is cast ashore, convicts and other people from Britain inhabited the new continent for a short period of time. White settlers lived isolated in settlements and tried to make this tiny space they discovered on this gigantic island their home. Most settlers did not want to have any contact to the indigenous people living there, because they were either ignorant or afraid of them. Their way of thinking was that they just needed to inhabit a piece of land long enough to call it their own. Obviously this way of thinking lead to conflicts with the aboriginal people on one hand, but also to conflicts with their environment on the other hand. The conflicts with the environment existed because they did not accept the country as their new home country and paid very little attention to their surrounding. Perhaps this syndrome is
also caused by the fact that the settlers never had a real connection to the land, while the indigenous people had a very deep bound to the earth they lived on. The boundary fence, boundaries of the mind and real as well as imagined cultural boundaries are reasons for the conflicts between aboriginal people and white settlers and the lacking connection to the land in Remembering Babylon. Eventually it is a matter of closed- or open-mindedness that decides between war and peace or misfortune and fortune.
Gemmy Fairley is not only the protagonist in David Malouf's Remembering Babylon, but at the same time an extraordinary creature. With his two lives he radically draws attention on himself, but at the same times becomes the target of close-minded settlers. Gemmy is the ultimate in-between creature and also the only one who crosses boundaries regularly, as he does already at the beginning of the novel when he jumps off the boundary fence (cf. Malouf 3). Carolyn Bliss describes Gemmy's appearance as follows:
Into this region of sharp boundary lines and stark antithesis comes Gemmy Fairley, a borderline character, suggested by the historical Gemmy Morril, who appears to the three white children at the novel's beginning as something unclassifiable within their fixed categories: half man and half beast, half black and half white, half here and half there, “neither one thing nor the other“ (Bliss 4)
Gemmy Fairley, half man half beast. When the three children play their pretend to be game, Lachlan Beattie actually thinks that ”cold air burned his nostrils“ and ”snow squeaked underfoot“ (Malouf 1). They see Gemmy with ”stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints“, he appears to be a ”human that in curses had been changed into a bird, but only halfway“ (Malouf 2). Half bird, half man, but neither one thing nor the other.
Mitchell puts it that way: ”When the shamanic spirit deserts him, and he is unable to hold both worlds within the circle, his fall is that of the helpless animal“ (Mitchell 2). Gemmy enters a new world, but loses the spirit of the old world. In fact Gemmy seems to
lose his aboriginal spirit more and more, the longer he stays in the settlement. When Gemmy is in the settlement ”for almost a year“, he is visited by ”two blacks” who presumably try to replenish Gemmy's aboriginal spirit (cf. Malouf 85). Another indication for Gemmy's fear of losing his spirit is the scene in which Gemmy visits George Abbot towards the end of the novel to retrieve the papers George wrote when Gemmy freshly came into the settlement (cf. Malouf 161). Gemmy thinks that he regains his spirit as the water washes the letters away. Aborigines think that pictures or written papers capture the soul of a person. Mitchell writes, ”Gemmy, meanwhile, is convinced that magic in the writing holds the whole of his life captive in the sheaf of papers“ (Mitchell 2).
When the children discover Gemmy, two worlds collide and the boundary has been crossed. According to Bliss ”several boundaries have been transgressed – at least linguistic, racial, and territorial – by Gemmy's mere emergence on the scene“ (Bliss 4). The children’s world as it is described as Siberia with snow and Gemmy with ”sweat in his eyes and its flame like flickering“ (Malouf 2). The pretend to be world meets real Australia. The settlers meet the no-man's-land, or the no-white-man's-land as it should be called. When Gemmy shouts, ”I am a B-b-british object“ the perfect in-between creature is born.