of crows feet around his eyes, the almost imperceptible flicker of pinkish,
naked lids; a deepening of the hollow above a man's collarbone as his throat
muscles tensed, and some word he was holding back, because it was unspeakable,
went up and down there, a lump of something he could neither swallow nor cough
up. (Malouf, p. 64)
It is interesting to note that Malouf has extended the theme of the absence of language, as being a means where communication between Gemmy and Frazer transcends any limitations Gemmy experiences with the other characters. Their friendship is unusual because it is one of the 'educated' colonial, spiritually bonding with the 'savage', the antithesis of his culture, through a love of nature expressed, not through language, but through art. Gemmy's oneness with nature and his sense of himself being wholly integrated with the land symbolises his acceptance of all that is around him. He has no need to change the land in any way, he has no fear of it, as the settlers do. They are afraid of the land because they want to tame it, "...by force of will, ...by felling, clearing sowing,..." (Malouf, p. 129), in other words they are in competition with it. Although, Frazer has grand colonial schemes for plantations, he also has an affinity for nature which is reflected in his drawings of plants. It is these wordless drawings which create a sense of wonder within Gemmy , a spiritual understanding of what Frazer feels when he puts pencil to paper. "Gemmy is entranced almost to breathlessness, his own spirit suspended as the real, edible, object, in its ghostly form, breaks out of itself onto the whiteness of the page." (Malouf, p. 129)
For Gemmy, language is a poor second to imagination, he does not depend on 'facts' to create for him any sense of belonging in the world, and everything he undergoes is an instant spontaneous reaction to whatever stimuli happens to touch his senses at the time. His traumatic experience with the pine cabinet during his stay at Mrs Hutchence's house, is a prime example of the type of sensory inspired flashback which is a prevalent part of his character, and Malouf's imagery. Through this sudden sensory overload Gemmy is transported back to his early childhood as the rat catcher's boy, Willett's boy. Here, the reader experiences a different view of Gemmy -- as a victim of the industrial revolution. All around him on the streets of London Gemmy sees the worst aspects of humanity; tinkers, punks and criminals fighting on the streets, their mentally waiting to be transported wholesale to the colonies. Gemmy's past life is one of depravation and emotional dependence on the tyrannous Willett. He is subjected to sexual abuse and beaten for the smallest transgression, and yet "...he has a place, he is Someone's boy." (Malouf, p. 149). Willett wields a terrible power and constant images of his boots remind the reader of Gemmy's lowly dog/master relationship, with the master towering above him, "...gigantic, with his shaggy brows and a voice that can creep about in every corner of the room, the fiery god--demon and ruler of his world,..."(Malouf, p. 147). He is a symbol of the ugliest side of human nature; powerful at the expense of the weak, and exploitative by virtue of a historical period when children were largely unaccounted for. He is a man who can only be equalled in nature by the outwardly more civilised and wealthier Gidely Singer.
Grenville, keeps the theme of 'facts' alive through the whole narrative, and the 'facts' have kept Gidely very much alive also. They have grown to encompass his whole figure, and he rationalises his every step with them--his relationship to his family is filtered through them--his running of Singer & Son', and his relationship to his daughter Lillian, is justified through them. He says;
The fact has always been the currency of my love for Lillian, and for the sake of allaying any suspicions she might have developed, I wove a web of facts around us so thick that she could not have seen anything behind them. (Grenville, p. 304)
In surrounding himself in this manner Gidely is not only hiding himself from his daughter, he is hiding himself from himself, and this, perhaps for the first time in his life, becomes apparent when he follows her and Duncan to the isolated stretch of coast. Here, Gidely is able to observe the 'real' daughter, and not as he hoped through the eyes of a gratified voyeur, but momentarily through the eyes of a father. He saw the affection she had for Duncan and thought,
When did my daughter last smile at me?...[he then states,] I watched her with a fullness in my heart I could not name, an ache like hunger or fear: it was some kind of chemical reaction going on within my organism that was new to me, and so painful I thought I might groan aloud. (Grenville, p. 324)
Even here, Gidely refers to the emotional forces within his body as a 'chemical reaction' and his body itself as an 'organism'---his inability to think in any other way, except in terms of facts from a medical journal, delineate his well learned behavioural patterns. Nevertheless, he is dealing with an ancient heart felt emotion, and this is the only way he knows how to express it. Moreover, because these feelings are all outside of his understanding of the 'self' he must endeavour to bring them quickly under control, which he later does with shocking rapidity and violence. The final straw for Gidely, is to see his daughter walk up the hill and out of sight--he is now truly alone with nature, and after all he has strived to become, he now has to face the ultimate fact; the fact of his own empty mortality. He had become "...simply, a husk waiting for decay" (Grenville, p.324 )
are a thing Frazer believes in too. When Gemmy is brought into the schoolroom
by Lachlan Beattie and left there in the presence of Mr Frazer the interrogator,
and George Abbot the penman, an amusing scene ensues in which he is quizzed
in a manner that can only be interpreted as bumbling. Once again, Malouf uses
language as a motif for expressing cultural differences. On one hand, Frazer
is endeavouring to get the facts of Gemmy's life down on paper, but his emotional
involvement in the matter colours his line of questioning and distorts his interpretation
of the answers so much, that he is inadvertently dictating a fictional history
of Gemmy's life. On the other, George Abbot is slyly adding his own creative
embroidery to the manuscript. The point is, Gemmy doesn't care much, who does
what---his culture is based on oral tradition, and language to Gemmy is as much
his senses, as it is the spoken or written word. Gemmy is infatuated with the
paper that George has written on, and regards the whole incident as a ritual
involving magic. When he is handed the pages by Frazer, he uses his nose to
sniff them, and when Frazer takes back the pages, Gemmy's "...tongue makes
sly appearances at the corner of his mouth as if the tip of it were the real
faculty of observation in him,..." (Malouf, p. 20). Malouf uses references
to the tongue in at least two other places in Remembering Babylon When Gemmy
is with Frazer on one of his botany trips and whilst watching him draw , his
tongue "...works on the corner of his lips as if it too had a part in the
business." (Malouf, p.129), and later when Gemmy has taken back the 'pages'
from George Abbot and wandered off into the bush---"A drop of water sizzled
on his tongue: the word - he had found it. Water. This motif also occurs in
An Imaginary Life, "...the tongue pointed at the corner of the mouth and
moving with each gesture of the hand, as if it too were one of the limbs we
have to use as men, ..." (Malouf, An Imaginary Life, 1994, p. 81). Malouf
can best explain these references himself; "Is [this] perhaps where speech
begins? In that need of the tongue to be active in the world, like a hand among
objects, grasping, pushing, shaping remaking?" (Malouf, 1994, p. 81)
The emptiness that is Gidely Singer grows to enormous proportions, and he can no longer contain it within his shell of a body. After his incestuous rape of his daughter and her subsequent insanity, and after the death of Nora, and after his son's departure, his emptiness explodes out into the real world and is made manifest in the sadly deserted house of which he is now the sole occupant. Even his facts---his belief in the solid; "a rock to cling to," were coming apart, because, "..
,...men you could trust, men with degrees from Oxford, were saying that the most solid matter, even a man's boot or a man's 18-carat gold collar stud, was in fact composed of millions of tiny particles of absolutely nothing at all. (Grenville, p. 361)
Grenville has depicted her version of power as a corrupt and evil force, which can manifest in the hearts of empty, lonely, men who through inheritance of family wealth, are automatically placed in a position of great power, whether they have the capacity to handle it wisely or not. All the inferiority complexes within the likes of Gidely Singer, are not annulled through money, facts or his hatred of women but, instead amplified to the level of insidious evil which gradually destroys not only his family, but himself also. This gradual self destruction can only be temporarily alleviated by the destruction of others, but in the end, it always destroys its host. Malouf, on the other hand, shows the power of imagery and a connectedness with nature. Gemmy does not need colonial status nor money--- he has no need to change the land about him, nor to try and change or conquer people. He does not rely on language as much as he relies on instinct. Through the absence of language, Gemmy's power, becomes one of natural honesty and pure innocence, and through this, Malouf circumvents all the discursive evils inherit in much of our language. Both, Malouf and Grenville steer away from the 'grand narrative' and instead they subtly deconstruct and subvert traditional colonial discourse by showing it up front, but from a unique and original angle.
Goodwin. Ken, A History of Australian Literature, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1986
Grenville Kate, Dark Places, Pan Macmillan Pty Ltd, Australia, 1995.
Malouf. David, Remembering Babylon, Random House Australia Pty Ltd, 1993.
Malouf. David, An Imaginary Life, Pan Books Australia Pty Ltd. 1994.
Scott. Sally, Westerly, "Provisional Maps: Critical Essays on David Malouf", ed. Amanda Nettelbeck, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1994.
Taylor. Andrew, Westerly, "David Malouf, Remembering Babylon", Vol, 38, No. 4 1993.