TITLE: REMEMBERING BABYLON
AUTHOR: DAVID MALOUF
PUBLISHER: PANTHEON; 200 PAGES; $20
THE BOTTOM LINE: An Australian writer re-creates his country's pioneer past with originality, not to mention Aboriginality.
A scarecrow of a man stumbles up to three children playing at the edge of a mid-19th century Australian frontier settlement and stutters, ''Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object.'' The most bumptious of the young group marches the frightened visitor home, where he is taken in as a stray. Speaking English as a forgotten language, he explains that his name is Gemmy Fairley, that he was a cabin boy shipwrecked off Queensland and raised by what today would be called Native Australians. ''Blacks,'' the fearful pioneers call them. If readers on the other side of the world experience a weird sense of displacement (the wildlife and astronomy are different, but these old Aussies with their Scottish, Irish and English accents are familiar), it is because + David Malouf writes about his historical compatriots as if they had never left the British Isles. Their bodies may be in the boundless Down Under, but their heads are still full of neat patches of sod, heather and greensward. Not to mention the God of their fathers, who blesses the seeding of new continents. The dangers of cultural crossings are unavoidable, as Malouf's title suggests. Fairley, a white man with Aboriginal ways, represents a primitive immigrant's worst confusion: the man in the right skin but the wrong tribe. Like the Wild Boy of Borneo, he is a reminder of instincts caged but not tamed by civilization. That such a creature has much to teach can be even more upsetting. So it is not the natives who are restless. Fairley, the harmless handyman of the good-hearted family that shelters him, stirs paranoia among the ignorant and the intolerant. Like the branches of their clans who thrived on slave labor in the American South, these early Queenslanders worry about uprisings and the loss of racial identity.
There is little doubt that Gemmy, embodying the Old World reborn in the New, is a sacred memory. But Malouf, a poet as well as a prizewinning novelist, is never too obvious. No stereotypes jump out of the bush. Crocodile Dundee and an easy way with strangers await the next century. Two of the novel's main characters survive to sample the new age. The boy who first led Fairley into town is an important government minister at the time of World War I. His cousin is a nun and natural scientist whose correspondence with a German bee expert arouses suspicions that she is a foreign agent. With this lovely bit of linkage, Malouf closes a remarkably original book: a lyric history that is also a national contra-epic.