Gemmy Fairly appears at the edge of a small mid-19th-century settlement out of the ‘empty’ north Queensland hinterland. He is 29 and has spent 16 years among Aborigines who rescued him after he was cast overboard from a passing ship. He has almost forgotten his own language, and has acquired the semi-mystical consciousness of the tribes-people. He is taken in by the McIvor family – Jock and Ellen, their small daughters Janet and Meg and nephew Lachlan Beattie. Soon his presence is causing concern. The community lives in a state of apprehension (what is feared is not at all clear) about the blacks, and it is thought Gemmy might still be communicating with them. There is also a feeling that his ‘whiteness’ has been compromised: that he is in some sense ‘unclean’. The McIvors’ nearest neighbour and friend, Barney Mason, is particularly anxious, and his unscrupulous roust-about, Andy McKillop, who sees two black men visit Gemmy and talk with him, plays on these fears.
There is a night raid. Gemmy is abducted, beaten, and only saved from drowning by Jock. He is removed to the care of a woman, Mrs Hutchence, the only one in the settlement who has a ‘real house’; but his own fears now are such that he feels he must reclaim the pages in which were transcribed as much as had been understood, and misunderstood, of his account of his previous life. Once he possesses what he (mistakenly) believes to be these sheets of paper, he feels released. He vanishes from the community. Nine years later Lachlan, working on a road-gang, convinces himself that Gemmy’s bones are among the remains he is shown of eight or nine blacks ridden down and killed three years previously in a ‘dispersal’ – but there is no certainty. In what comes as a coda to the narrative, Lachlan and Janet meet in old age and reflect on how Gemmy’s appearance among them affected their lives and their view of themselves.
When Gemmy comes into the settler community they notice not only his loss of English but physical changes that have made him seem closer to an Aborigine than to a European. They wonder inwardly: ‘Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It.’ The space between their sense of a duty to a White who has endured such misfortune, and their response to one who looks, smells and behaves like a Black, is the screen on which the nature of racism is projected. But Malouf is more deeply concerned with the relation of humankind to the Australian landscape. By becoming ‘aboriginal’, Gemmy has crossed the divide which separates white Australia from the land it occupies.
The clergyman, Mr Frazer, has some sense of this. He uses Gemmy’s knowledge of the local flora and fauna to assist in compiling what he thinks of as a ‘report’. His vision is of an Australian continent which would provide for its settlers as it has provided for its aboriginal inhabitants – not by introduced crops and animals, but by the hunting and gathering of what is already there. When he offers this report to the Governor, Sir George Bowen, the latter’s incomprehension is meant, it seems, to illustrate another aspect of the settler failure to come to terms with the true inner reality of Australia. The exact nature of the potential ‘native’ vegetable-and meat-supply is not spelled out; and that may be as well for Malouf’s purpose, since it is indicated that Sir George’s estate grows strawberries, grapes, peaches and asparagus; grazes deer, Breton cows, and an Arabian bull; and runs peacocks and pheasants.
There is a slight oddness about the shaping and tone of this novel. It sketches interestingly the background of the schoolteacher, George Abbot, and offers the beginning of his relationship with Miss Leona Gonzales, but then leaves him, and it, undeveloped. It suggests more about Gemmy’s childhood than it reveals, as if the author had thought it out and then decided against using it. It promises a Victorian-style development of character, leisurely and ample, but then fails to deliver. In tone it seems to shape towards a tragedy, for Gemmy and the local blacks, and perhaps for the McIvors, but turns aside from such dramatic potential in favour of a more lifelike shading away into uncertainties and inconclusions.
Perhaps a much larger novel has been trimmed down; or perhaps the first drafts proved to Malouf that his larger intentions were flawed, but not before they had been signalled in the writing. If these guesses of mine are wrong, the fact that the novel prompts them at least indicates something about its structure – one with more elaborate foundations than seem appropriate to the final design. A good deal of what happens goes on below the surface. The settlers are neither frank nor articulate, so the forces of thought and feeling among them – liberal and good-hearted on one-side, racist and violent on the other – are delivered to us in generalised abstract by the novelist himself, and through the perceptions of Gemmy who must also stand for the shadowy and absent tribespeople:
And in fact a good deal of what they [the settlers] were after he [Gemmy] could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless. He did not intend it that way, but he too saw that it might be true. 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. You blundered about seeing holes where in fact strong spirits were at work that had to be placated, and if you knew how to call them up, could be helpful. Half of what ought to have been bright and full of the breath of life to you was shrouded in mist.
The novel has many such passages – decently written, worthy in intention, perfectly in step with the moral precepts of our time. European colonial culture blundered in, powerful, ignorant, destructive. So it did. But how do you represent in living fictional form what you suppose must have been destroyed? What, for example, does it mean to say ‘there was no way of existing in this land ... unless you took into yourself, discovered on your breath, the sounds that linked up all the various parts of it and made them one’? Too much is required to be taken on trust.
Jock McIvor is the only adult male in the community who is open to Gemmy’s influence, and he begins to recognise the fact in the following passage, where he acknowledges his separation from ‘them’ – his fellow-settlers:
Was he changed? He saw now that he must be ...
When had it begun’?
When they agreed to take Gemmy in ...
He had never been a thinker, and he did not now become one, but he began to have strange thoughts.
Some of them were bitter. They had to do with what he saw, now that he looked, was in the hearts of men – quite ordinary fellows like himself; he wondered that he had not seen it before. What the other and stranger thoughts had to do with he did not know.
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable sell, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone.
This, of course, is not Jock McIvor thinking at all, but Malouf thinking for him. And now, as if to illustrate instantly the new man Jock has become, he begins to see things in the natural world previously unnoticed: green insects on grass tips, a bird drawing long silver threads out of the running water of a stream. These perceptions are ‘like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating.’
The change affects his marriage too, beneficially. Here is Jock’s wife noticing the improvement:
He had turned his full gaze upon her – that is what she felt. He wanted to know now what her life was beyond what he saw and had taken for granted, a shirt washed and shaken to make it soft, food on the table; to enquire into her affections. It was amazing to him – that is what his tentativeness suggested – that he had known so little and had not looked. There were times now when the intensity of his looking made her blush.
It was as if they were at the beginning of a courtship.
In such writing we are told what we have not been shown: even what we may feel we have no good reason to believe. Gemmy is an unfortunate stick-figure who brings, says and does next-to-nothing. Why should his arrival among them prompt this radical change, this self-discovery, turning a hardy forty-year-old settler into a sensitive New Age guy? There is nothing to explain it or make it plausible. It is there because it serves the novel’s moral purpose. Don’t ask why. Take your medicine!
Settler societies breed two phases of myth. In the first the settlers romanticise themselves and their heroic fight against the untamed and the uncivilised. In the second, their somewhat-educated descendants, enjoying all the benefits of settlement, represent their forebears as ignorant destroyers, and romanticise the unique character and spiritual identity of the culture which colonisation damaged or destroyed. The second phase is a strong element in modern Australian fiction. In varying strengths it is found in White, in Keneally, in Carey and in Malouf. Since all such myths contain their part-share of truth, they need not be damaging. But to manage them the fiction writer needs to hang on to a sense of probability and of irony.
In pre-publication publicity Doris Lessing has welcomed this novel’s ‘really impressive achievement’, which is to compress ‘the myths, the poetry, the history of a vast and ancient continent’; Michael Ondaatje has likened it to ‘a spirit painting in a 19th century locket – full of wisdoms and magic – the most delicate tracing of a profound and elliptical history, thrilling in its style and adventurousness’; the marketing director of Waterstone’s has called it ‘visionary’, ‘a combination of Coetzee, Ondaatje and Okri’; and the publishing director of Picador has called it ‘inspired, magnificently poetic and elliptical ... a world novel in every sense to rank alongside the best of Coetzee, Salman Rushdie ... and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’.
Does Malouf deserve such backers – and perhaps the Booker as well? Maybe he does; maybe they all deserve one another. Here are his final paragraphs:
Out beyond the flatlands the line of light pulses and swells. The sea, in sight now, ruffles, accelerates. Quickly now it is rising towards us, it approaches.
As we approach prayer. As we approach knowledge. As we approach one another.
It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it, and the light running in fast now, reaches the edges of the shore, just so far in its order, and all the muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of running flit all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life.
What is happening here? Well, nothing really. But it’s ‘visionary’ – isn’t it? Even ‘elliptical’?